Off the Shelf
A Penguins of Madagascar fanfic
Chapter 1: "Operation: No zaidi Foolish Risks"

It was a typical morning at the Central Park Zoo. The birds in the air were singing; their flightless cousins below were smiling and waving. Julien was kicking Mort off his feet; Alice had her feet on her desk. Mason and Phil were playing chess. Leonard was asleep. Marlene was out of her habitat and running toward the Zoovenir shop.

"Well, that's unusual," Private alisema as he saw Marlene bata behind a garbage can. She was about three-quarters of the way between her habitat and the Zoovenir duka entrance.

"I agree, Private," Skipper said, pointing at one of the visitors in front of the penguin, auk habitat. "That is a very strange-looking mustache."

"Not that," Private said, pointing toward Marlene. "That."

Marlene was peeking out from behind the can to see when it was clear enough around her to advance. "Calamari!" Skipper exclaimed. "We all know not to be out of our habitats when there are so many people around! Rico, give me a distraction so I can make an exit."

Rico nodded and then waddled over to the samaki bowl. There were twelve herring inside, three intended for each penguin, but Rico swallowed them all in one gulp. sekunde later, he let out a mighty burp that shook the ground like a small earthquake and sent the stench of samaki into the air for a fifty-foot radius.

The visitors got one whiff and quickly turned around. "Eww!" "Disgusting!" "Gross!" "My eyes are burning!" they could be heard saying as they covered their noses and hurried away.

Once the visitors were gone, Skipper jumped from the iceberg to the habitat's fence and then down to the ground, where he slid on his belly until he was in front of the Zoovenir shop. He then hid under an A-frame sign near the entrance and waited.

A few sekunde later, Marlene left the cover of the trash receptacle and took off toward the Zoovenir shop's entrance. A visitor had just entered, and the closing door was still open just wide enough for her.

But she never got that far. "Aaahh!" she screamed as she was suddenly grabbed from behind. Her moyo began to race.

"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" Skipper alisema as he took her underneath the sign. "Where do wewe think you're going?"

Marlene relaxed a little, relieved that it was only Skipper. She rolled her eyes. "I'm going to send all my secret intel on wewe to that Dr. Holeblow guy. Where does it look like I'm going?"

Skipper eyed her suspiciously.

Marlene sighed. "Relax, Skipper. I'm just going inside the Zoovenir duka to get my paws on the latest Enrico Guitaro CD before they're all sold out. I've been watching people walk out with copies all morning."

"Enrico Guitaro? Isn't he the Spanish guitar, gitaa player we took wewe to see last mwaka but then wewe turned into a nervous Nellie after one song and we had to go back nyumbani and then hunt down your isolated wild side, Littlefoot?"

The otter let out a little groan. "Yes, thank wewe for that sensitive exposition. But now I can hear all the songs I missed because the whole tamasha was recorded."

"Well, you'll have to wait until the Zoovenir duka is closed to get your copy. You'll get caught if wewe go in when there are people around."

"But all the copies might be sold kwa then!"

"I doubt it. I mean, how maarufu is Spanish guitar, gitaa muziki anyway?"

Marlene growled.

"Hey! I'm not saying I don't like it. I can play myself, remember?" The penguin, auk thought for a moment. "Tell wewe what. If all the copies have been sold kwa closing time, the boys and I will find wewe one somewhere else. au we'll swipe Alice's credit card again and order one from Amazon. Do wewe need anything else? We can get free shipping if we spend zaidi than twenty-five dollars. Unless Alice has a Prime account."

"But that's the thing, Skipper. Enrico Guitaro: Live in Central Park is available only at the Zoovenir duka and in an extremely limited quantity. It's what the sign we're standing under says."

Skipper poked his head out to look at the sign, which had that information written on it in blue liquid chalk along with drawings of a yellow Spanish guitar, gitaa and purple musical notes. He pulled his head back in. "OK, OK. But wewe still can't go inside."

Marlene took three steps out from under the sign. "I'll only be a minute!"

Skipper grabbed her arm, halting her progress. "Marlene!"

"Come on, Skipper! What's the worst that could happen?"

"You don't want to know. wewe wouldn't even want to know the second- au third-worst thing that could happen. But the fourth worst is that wewe get seen kwa one of the humans, he au she screams, the other humans start screaming and panicking because they don't know what's going on, Alice comes running and catches wewe with a net if she's having a good siku au kwa shooting wewe with a dart if she's having a bad day—and when does she ever have a good day?—you get taken back to your habitat, your habitat gets new security features to prevent wewe from escaping again, Alice decides to inspect all the other habitats at the same time, she discovers our HQ, and—worst of all—she finds my embarrassing collection of cowboy hats, tailless chaps, and other Sheriff Skipper role-playing accessories."

Marlene tried not to laugh. She failed. "Sheriff Skipper. Haha! Really?"

Skipper shot Marlene a look of mild reproach. "Oh, come on. wewe have embarrassing secrets too. Like how wewe like to—"

"Aah!" Skipper's revealing of Marlene's once-private habit was interrupted kwa something that made the otter even zaidi uncomfortable. "Another copy that should've been mine!" she alisema as she saw a woman walk out with Enrico's newest album. She then saw a married couple about to enter the shop, the husband pushing a stroller with identical twin boys. "I'm sorry, Skipper, but I've got to go!" She jumped into the storage area at the bottom of the passing stroller before Skipper could stop her again.

"Marlene!" Skipper poked his head out to see if the coast was clear and then entered the duka directly behind the wife.

"All right, tembo toys, tembo toys," the husband alisema a short distance into the store. "Ah, I think I see some stuffed wanyama down there." He pushed the stroller a little farther and stopped in front of a long shelf with stuffed wanyama of all shapes and sizes and species. He turned to his wife. "Oh, and tembo pajamas. Why don't wewe pick out some nice matching ones for the boys, and I'll meet wewe at the counter?"

"OK," she said.

As the woman started to walk away with her husband still looking at her, Skipper knew he was about to be exposed, so he quickly jumped onto the shelf to avoid being seen. Though he was the only living creature there, he blended in well among the Noah's Ark of plush. He knew he'd be safe—he was an average-size penguin, not an unusually small elephant.

It took no zaidi than a few moments for the man to pick out identical elephants for his identical boys. He set the toys on the stroller canopy and started to songesha away.

Achoo!

The man stopped. "Eww," he said. He looked into the stroller and saw that his sons were no longer quite identical, his minutes-older boy now in desperate need of a nose wiping from Daddy.

Hearing the boy sneeze and his father's reaction, Marlene knew the man was going to need a baby wipe. She also knew where the wipes were—inside the stroller's storage area, right under her tail.

Marlene turned to her left and her right, looking for an escape. To her left was the main area of the room; it was the direction from which the father would probably reach in. To her right was the shelf of stuffed animals. She could feel the man's hand just graze the tip of her tail as she jumped out to safety, landing between a plush lion and a plush zebra.

A dakika passed, the nose was wiped, and the man moved on. As she watched the stroller disappear, Marlene was relieved. She had successfully avoided discovery.

"Aaah!" There was a sudden touch on her shoulder.

"At ease, plushie," Skipper said. "But not too at ease. We've got to stay sharp so no human walks out with one of us as a plaything before we are able to execute our escape plan."

"You have an escape plan?"

"Technically, I have four escape plans, but three of them would inflict heavy collateral damage. We'll talk about them only if they become unavoidable. For now, we're going to go with Operation: No zaidi Foolish Risks."

Marlene sighed. She had a feeling Skipper had named his operation after her actions that got them trapped in the Zoovenir duka in the first place. "I'm sorry, Skipper. I let my upendo of Spanish guitar, gitaa put our safety at risk."

Skipper smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry. We all do crazy things for love. Uh, I mean, don't be so hard on yourself. If unexpected situations didn't happen every siku in our zoo, I'd be stuck in some boring dawati job." He pointed at some plushes toward the rear of the shelf. "Today's operation will be a little on the boring side, though. While our natural penguin, auk and otter camouflage works well to blend in with these stuffed toys, we won't last long pretending to be inanimate objects at the front of the shelf. We're just too darn cute. So what we need to do is songesha to the back of the shelf so we're barely seen if seen at all. We'll then wait patiently until the Zoovenir duka closes and then we'll be free to leave."

Marlene nodded. "Sounds like a plan." She moved the plush lion over a little so she could start moving back.

Skipper turned around to start moving back himself, but he turned back toward the room when he heard footsteps. "Psst, Marlene. Someone's coming. Keep very still."

Marlene was facing the shelf and her tail was facing the rest of the room. Her body wasn't zaidi than a few inches deeper than the lion toy as a mother and her young daughter walked closer.

"Animals!" the brown-haired five-year-old, wearing a mint green T-shirt and blue jeans, alisema as she skipped toward the shelf with arms wide open. She hugged all the creatures in her wingspan not far from where Skipper and Marlene were. "I upendo you!"

"Aww," the mother alisema as she caught up to her daughter. She had a deep blue T-shirt with a business logo on the back and khaki pants. "They upendo wewe too, sweetie. Pick out your inayopendelewa one and I'll buy it for you."

The child started looking through the wanyama in front of her and picked up a plush fox, mbweha and a plush rabbit. Unlike all the other toys, these two were wearing clothing. The red fox, a male, was dressed in a green Hawaiian shati with a fern, kangaga pattern and the juu button unbuttoned, a loose navy necktie with red and light blue diagonal stripes, and gray pants. He had green eyes that were half shut, a dark purple nose, and a sly expression. The rabbit, a gray-furred female, was wearing a form-fitting police uniform, her shati light blue, her pants navy. A dhahabu badge on her navy bulletproof vest completed the purple-eyed officer's outfit. The girl chuckled. "I guess anyone can be anything."

Suddenly, the mother laughed. "I don't believe it!" She picked up Marlene. "It's one of those old otter dolls!"

Her daughter looked up at her, confused. "Huh?" She set the fox, mbweha and rabbit back on the shelf.

"You were just a baby then, the last time we were here," the mother continued. "I was going to buy wewe one of these otter dolls, but—" She squeezed Marlene's chest. "Hmm." She squeezed a few zaidi times and then stopped. "Well, the heads on the otter dolls back then kept popping off when wewe squeezed them. This one seems to be a better quality." She ran her fingers over Marlene's cheek, inspected the thickness of her "plush," closed and reopened her eyelids, flexed her tail, and wiggled her toes. "Much, much better quality. This otter is so realistic that I can almost feel her little heartbeat." She handed Marlene to her daughter. "Would wewe like to take her nyumbani with you?"

The little girl hugged Marlene and smiled. When she nodded to her mother, Marlene shot Skipper a look of worry. Sure, the child seemed nice, but Marlene was not some toy!

Skipper kept still but winked in acknowledgement. He had already been thinking about which of his three remaining escape plans to execute from the moment Marlene had been picked up.

Unfortunately, the wink was also a bit misleading—he was currently down to zero. Two of the three required a partner, and there was just no way to brief Marlene in time; the third he had to reject after determining that the plush rabbit police officer carried no real weapons.

He needed a new fourth option, and quick.

He couldn't turn off the lights because the light switch was all the way across the room. The closest moto alarm he couldn't pull because it was blocked kwa a rack of T-shirts in a blatant violation of city regulations. He couldn't even let out a stinky samaki burp because he didn't have any breakfast that morning.

Skipper then considered his original fourth option—Operation: No zaidi Foolish Risks—and how he and Marlene were going to pretend to be stuffed wanyama at the back of the shelf until it was salama to get away. He realized that the plan could still be salvaged if he redefined objectives. The mission was no longer about preventing himself and Marlene from being purchased; it was now about keeping Marlene salama and preventing her from having to experience the unknown alone.

Quickly, Skipper grabbed a nearby stuffed porcupine that had a 50% off sticker on its head. He peeled the sticker off and stuck it to his own chest. He knew that many humans buy things they don't need when they are on sale. He hoped that this mother would be just as impulsive as he rolled off the shelf, landing between the two humans with a definite thud but no broken bones.

The mother laughed as she bent down to pick Skipper up. "Aw, poor little guy! wewe thought wewe could fly, didn't you?"

"Huh?" the daughter said.

"Penguins," the mother alisema as she held Skipper in front of her daughter, "are flightless birds." She flapped Skipper's flippers up and down. "They use their wings for swimming, not for flying."

The girl giggled. "He looks so cute when wewe do that, Mom." She tucked Marlene under her arm and took Skipper from her mother. "Cute and cuddly." She hugged the penguin. "Can I have him too?"

The mother shook her head. "Sorry, Chelsea. wewe can only have one stuffed animal. You'll have to choose."

Chelsea stopped hugging Skipper and held him in her left hand. She held Marlene in her right. She was about to start thinking about which one she wanted zaidi when her mother took Skipper away.

"What?" Chelsea asked.

"This penguin, auk is half off," she said, looking at the sticker. She thought for a moment. "Tell wewe what. wewe can have both on one condition."

"Uh-huh."

"Bedtime means bedtime. No fussing."

Seven thirty still seemed too early when there was so much left to see and talk about and play with each night, but the child agreed. For now. "OK!" she alisema with a smile.

The mother smiled back. "Great," she said. She gently took Marlene from her daughter, exchanging the otter for her own hand. "Come on. Let's go pay for your friends."

The line at the counter was short. Just one man was ahead of them, and he was buying only one item—Enrico Guitaro: Live in Central Park. Marlene saw this but kept her feelings to herself, knowing it was an inopportune time to complain.

"Have a good day," the friendly cashier girl said, handing him his receipt. "Enjoy the music. It's his best yet."

Marlene died a little zaidi inside.

"Hello," the cashier alisema as the mother and Chelsea stepped up.

"Hi," the mother replied. She set Skipper and Marlene on the counter.

The cashier picked up Marlene first. "Huh, I didn't know we still had any of these." She held Marlene behind the counter and squeezed her—she didn't want to sell a customer a defective product. When Marlene's head stayed on, she reached for her laser scanner and turned Marlene around and then upside down twice. "Huh, no tags," she alisema as she put Marlene back on the counter. She then picked up Skipper and lifted each of his flippers and then turned him upside down. She put him back on the counter too. "No tags on this one either. Just a discount sticker." She looked at the mother. "You didn't take them off, did you? They don't even have their fiber content tags."

The mother shook her head. "No. I didn't even notice that they were missing."

"Let me see if I can find a penguin, auk and an otter plush that I can scan." She left the counter.

About ninety sekunde later, the cashier returned empty-handed. "Looks like wewe found the last otter doll and the last penguin, auk of that style." She looked at Chelsea and chuckled. "You're not trying to take nyumbani two of our real animals, are you, sweetie?"

The accusation took Chelsea kwa surprise. Her blush was adorable as she shook her head. "No!"

The cashier chuckled again and then looked back at the mother. "We don't usually sell merchandise without price tags, but I'll give wewe the same price for the otter as we're charging for a similarly sized badger—$12.95—and half off the $10.95 the other penguins are being sold for." She pressed some keys on her cash register. "Your total with tax is $20.07."

The mother took out her wallet and handed the cashier a twenty-dollar bill and a dime.

The cashier pressed a few zaidi keys before handing the mother three pennies and a receipt. "Would wewe like a bag?"

The mother shook her head. "No thank you. I think my daughter wants to carry them." She handed Skipper and Marlene to Chelsea. "Have a good day."

"Thanks! wewe too."

Chelsea hugged her new Marafiki as she began walking away from the counter with her mother.

"Skipper," Marlene whispered, her mouth barely open as if she were a ventriloquist, "what do we do now?"

"Not to worry, Marlene." Skipper slowly took a breath so Chelsea wouldn't feel it. "You heard the mother: bedtime means bedtime. We'll sneak away tonight after the little girl falls asleep."

The otter took a small breath. "Yeah, if we don't get caught. That was pretty close at the cash register."

"We'll be fine as long as we continue to breathe very slowly and quietly around the humans"—he paused for a breath—"and control bodily noises when they can hear us and not blink when they're looking at us."

"That last one's getting a bit hard. She won't stop looking at us."

"I can fix that. Difficult things are always less challenging with a good mission name." He took a breath. "Commence Operation: Staring Contest."

♦ ♦ ♦

"Still no sign of them, Kowalski," Private reported while looking at the Zoovenir duka through binoculars. Chelsea and her mother then exited the store. "Huh, I didn't know the Zoovenir duka started stocking, pantyhose otter dolls again." He lowered the binoculars and turned to Kowalski. "Do wewe think Skipper and Marlene are all right? Maybe we should go over to see if they need any help."

"No, we have to stay here, Private," Kowalski replied. "There are too many people right now in the—Did wewe just say 'otter dolls'?"

"That's ri—" Private began as Kowalski grabbed the binoculars from him.

Kowalski scanned the humans near the Zoovenir duka and focused on Chelsea. "That's not a toy! That is Marlene!" Chelsea then shifted Marlene a little in her arms, revealing that the otter wasn't alone. "And Skipper too! That girl must think they're stuffed animals!"

"Not again! First I get mistaken for a dog chew toy, then Mort accidentally ends up at the factory when his plush toys are recalled, and now this? Kowalski, what do we do?"

"I can come up with a few options, but first I'm going to need your help."

"Absolutely."

"Good." Kowalski stopped looking through the binoculars and held them out for Private. "Hold these, please. I can't get my options board out and hold them at the same time."

Private sighed silently, hoping to do something zaidi important, but he took the binoculars as Kowalski pulled out a whiteboard and a marker from the secret space behind his back. The young penguin, auk watched the sekunde in command scribble on his board for a moment and then turned his attention back to the young girl and her mother. They had stopped walking, and the mother had her smartphone out.

Private zoomed the binoculars in on the screen. "'Busy, Liz?' 'Just leaving the zoo with Chelsea.' 'I hate the zoo.' 'What! How can anyone hate the zoo?'"

Kowalski looked up from his board. "What was that, Private?"

"I started looking at the mother and daughter again. The mother is texting with someone. The other person asked if she was busy, and the mother replied that she was just leaving the zoo. The other person apparently doesn't like the zoo."

"Hmm. What else are they saying?"

"Let's see. The other person replied, 'Never mind. I just locked my keys in my car. But I know Mother kept a set when she got a new car and gave me her old one. Any chance wewe can give me a ride to her apartment?' Then the mother said, 'Sure. If there's no traffic, we'll be at the car wash in 20 minutes.' The other person just said, 'Thank wewe so much. See wewe soon.' And now the mother is putting her phone back in her pocket."

"Car wash?" Kowalski said. He paused for a moment and then his eyes lit up. "Private! Quick! What does it say on the back of the mother's shirt?"

"Uh . . ." He zoomed out a little and then zoomed back in just a bit. "Borough's Best Something Something Something."

"What?"

"I can't make it all out, Kowalski. The little girl's blocking the rest of the words." Then, after a moment, "OK, got it! Borough's Best Automatic Car Wash!"

"Yes! She was probably texting with someone she works with." Kowalski wiped away his whiteboard scribbles with a flipper and drew a crude picture of a car with shine lines radiating from it. He turned the board to Private. "I think we have our option."

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link to continue to the sekunde chapter.