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#56

Duck



                The beach on the south side of Cobb Lake was nothing like the image that usually came to Charlene’s mind when she heard the word “beach.” The image in her mind was a vast expanse of white sand, the mighty ocean crashing on the shore, crowds of dazed tourists sizzling in the sun. But the Cobb Lake beach wasn’t bad. A little strip of sand, a dozen or so children splashing and shouting in the shallow water, their indolent mothers sitting nearby on towels and disparaging the elementary school, an employee of the parks department raking stringy weeds that had washed ashore into oozing piles to be carted away in a rusty wheelbarrow. It was peaceful.

                “Don’t go out past the buoys,” said Charlene, and her daughter kicked off her flip flops and ran into the water, stumbling and falling forward with a delighted shriek.

                Charlene spread her towel out on the sand a polite distance away from the other mothers. Though her husband had grown up nearby, he had just recently moved the family back. Charlene still felt like an outsider and she didn’t want to impose.  But the mothers called her over and introduced themselves almost immediately and she’d been chatting with them for almost half an hour when one of the children in the water shouted, “Look! Ha Ha! It’s a big duck!”

                Charlene squinted her eyes against the glare of the afternoon sun on the surface of the water, trying to figure out what she was looking at. As it came closer, she realized it was a boat made to look like a giant swimming duck, a white fiberglass body on top of a pontoon boat with viewports of tinted glass in the front and on the sides , presumably so the pilot could see where he was going. The top of the duck’s head was at least ten feet off of the water.

                Charlene looked at the other ladies for an explanation, but they seemed as surprised as she was.

                “That’s a cute idea,” said one.

                “It’s coming right over here,” said another. “Probably to put on a show for the kids.”

                The children were transfixed by the approach of the duck, clapping their hands and calling requests and demands back to their mothers. “Mom, I wanna ride the duck! What’s the duck’s name, mom? Mom, tell Gavin it’s not a goose!”

                When the duck was thirty yards from shore, its engine sputtered to a halt and it sat floating in silence for a few moments, its audience on the beach waiting, expectant. Then, abruptly, the duck’s beak fell open and a hideous, distorted loop of a prerecorded cackle came from somewhere inside of it, loud and not at all cute. The mothers frowned and some of the kids held their hands over their ears. The cackle went on and on. Charlene got to her feet and waved her hands at the duck. “Go away!” she shouted. “That’s enough! Go away!”

                The cackle didn’t stop.

                The rest of the mothers joined in Charlene’s shouting. “Get out of here! You’re not welcome!”

                The kids shouted to, enjoying the game. “Go away! Get outta here, duck!”

                None of them heard the panel on the duck’s back slide open, but they all saw the large ovoid object come hurtling towards them in a majestic arc, spinning end over end, silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky. The screams of the children and mothers were barely audible over the duck’s incessant cackle as the object crashed onto the beach, bursting open and splashing disgusting muck and greenish water across the sand like a huge filthy water balloon.

                 “You’re going to hurt someone you maniac!” screamed Charlene. Kids and mothers were running past her, leaving their shoes and towels and pails and inflatable rafts behind in their panic. Charlene’s own daughter was tugging at her hand, begging her to run too. “We have to get away, mom! It’s gonna throw another egg!”

                The duck cackled and cackled.

                “You’re going to jail!” shouted Charlene.

                “Mom,” cried her daughter. “Mom, ducks can’t go to jail.”

                The next egg ruined Charlene’s entire outfit. It ruined her daughter’s love of the beach for life.

               

Over the next few weeks, the duck struck again and again, but only at night. It catapulted its vile eggs onto piers, boats, lawns, and patios, contaminating the beautiful properties that lined the banks of Cobb Lake on all sides and then churning off into the marshy waterways that connected Cobb to the other lakes in the chain, it’s horrible laugh rolling out over the water and disturbing the sleep of lakers and year round residents alike.

                Sometimes Vi c, unable to sleep, would stand on his deck in his robe and watch the duck’s ghostly form gliding over the water. When it sounded, the echoes of the duck’s cackle sent an odd, not altogether unpleasant chill down his spine, goose bumps appearing on his bare legs. As he watched the duck pelt the houses of his friends and neighbors with the eggs launched from the opening in its back, he wondered when it would be his turn, when he would jerk awake in bed at the sound of the duck’s cackle and know that a repulsive mess awaited him.

                Sometimes he’d see people who had been awoken by the sound of the duck’s eggs splattering outside their bedroom windows come running out onto their lawns in their pajamas shouting threats and shaking their fists at the duck. One time, across the lake, he saw a flash and a moment later he heard the report of a gun. Whether the duck had been hit it or not Vic couldn’t say, but it was back two nights later, seemingly unfazed.

                Another night a neighbor who must have been lying in wait for the duck’s appearance, peeking out from behind his kitchen curtains, ran down to his pier and jumped into his fishing boat as the duck passed within a twenty yards of the end of his pier. The man raced straight toward the duck in an apparent attempt to ram it, but the duck maneuvered with surprising skill at the last moment and the fishing boat struck only a glancing blow that jarred it badly enough to disable its outboard motor. As the fishing boat bobbed helplessly on the wake caused by the collision, its driver cursed and flipped switches with a desperation that looked more like fear than anger from Vic’s vantage point on his deck. The duck wheeled around and bumped its chest up against the side of the boat, its head looming over the man as he struck at it with a fishing rod. Then a gurgling sound came from near the back of the duck, its beak swung open, and a torrent of lake water came flowing forth, drenching the man, sending him staggering backwards as his boat filled with water. Within minutes the fishing boat was swamped and sinking and the man was left to swim back to shore as the duck drove away cackling like some sort of duck/hyena hybrid.

                Vic was intrigued by the logistics of the duck’s crusade. It was certainly no secret. Everyone in town knew about the duck. It was all they talked about over breakfast at the diner and in the pro shop at the golf course. Vic had theories. He suspected that the duck wasn’t coming from any of the homes on the lake. He thought that someone might be using a trailer to haul the duck to the more secluded boat ramps somewhere along the chain of lakes, probably a different ramp every time, probably dropped at one and picked up at another by a partner or partners, maybe even as far up as the Mulhooley River. Hauling the duck on a boat trailer without drawing attention would be tricky, but Vic believed that a good-sized boat cover would be able to conceal the body as long the neck and head of the duck were able to swivel down into the catapult hatch or were transported separately and attached right before the duck launched.

                Vic spent very little time on the question of “why?” To him, it felt obvious. Of course, the duck, of course. Hadn’t part of him always felt that the duck would arrive someday? Standing on his deck at 2:30 in the morning as sheet lightning flashed along the face of an ominous bank of clouds to the East,  Vic looked at the massive houses that surrounded Cobb Lake, some of which were only inhabited for a handful of weeks out of the year. He looked at the piers, the boat lifts, the diving platforms, the terraced yards, the flags emblazoned with the logos of state universities.  He looked at the black expanse of the water. The duck belonged here. Not in spite of what people felt about it, but because of what people felt. This was its habitat.

                There were only a few cops on the town’s payroll and during the night shift they didn’t feel compelled to do much beyond hang out in the one 24 hour gas station and cruise the back streets in search of kids violating curfew. They certainly weren’t going to stake out the entire lake in order to stop the duck. That left the department of natural resources. The DNR was notoriously incompetent and understaffed, but eventually the complaints became so numerous and so vehement that they had to do something.

                One foggy night, while Vic stood on his deck, drinking a banana milkshake he’d made in his blender, listening to the cicadas, and watching the duck lob eggs at a mansion just down the way that was still under construction, three DNR boats came roaring out of a nearby channel and drove in circles around the duck, leaving it no gap through which to escape. The officers shouted demands to surrender through megaphones but the duck made no attempt to get away from the much faster and more nimble DNR boats.

                Vic thought it was all over for the duck. It stopped not far from the shore in front of Vic’s house and the DNR boats throttled back and tightened up around it, idling closer, wary of any tricks. Nothing happened. There were no acts of aggression from the duck. Then it began to cackle.

                One of the officers found a small entrance in the back of the duck just to the left of its motor, barely big enough for a man to crawl through. Vic saw the officer lean out of his boat and smash the entrance open, saw him crawl inside, and a moment later the recorded cackling ceased and Vic heard the officer call out, “There’s no one in here! Just an open hatch in the floor!” The officers shone their floodlights out over the water in all directions, but they didn’t see the dark figure emerge from beneath Vic’s pier and run dripping up through his yard, ducking from tree to tree, passing so close that if Vic hadn’t averted his eyes, he could have clearly seen the man’s face.

                The duck was taken and searched for clues. The pontoon boat wasn’t registered, the catapult and pump system were homemade, the PA looked like a garage sale purchase. No one was really sure what other clues there could be so the duck was dismantled.

                A week later, Vic awoke from a deep, dreamless sleep and thought he heard the duck’s cackle, distant and fleeting. He stared up at his ceiling and realized that no, it couldn’t be the cackle, the duck was dead.

                When Vic awoke the next morning, he stepped out into a bright, sunny day and discovered that his deck and yard were covered with filth. Some of his deck furniture was ruined. His grill was toppled on its side. Everything smelled terrible.

                A second duck, then? An imitator? A miraculous resurrection of the original?

                It was going to take hours to clean up the mess.

                Vic’s day was shot.

                On the lake, a ski-boat sped past towing a man ostentatiously slaloming and waving at other boaters. Another boat cruised by in the other direction, packed full of tan teenagers nearly collapsing in on themselves under the weight of a truly immense amount of free time.

                “Enjoy the daylight,” said Vic to the revelers on the water. “Enjoy the sun, enjoy the heat. The duck comes for us all.” 




Discussion Questions

  • Why a duck? Why not a Sea Monster, the most menacing of all waterfowl?



  • Attempt to grasp Vic’s feelings about the duck. Now attempt to put those feelings into words.



  • Does the world need ducks? Specifically, does our society need ducks? If so, why? Think about these questions in terms of ducks-the-concept-as-presented-in-this-story. Not literal ducks.



  • Have you ever been the duck? Have you ever been the victim of the duck? How did it make you feel? Again, I’m not talking about literal ducks here.



  • Why does Vic avert his eyes when the pilot of the duck runs past him?



  • Do you believe that you have to think like a duck in order to apprehend a duck that’s been vandalizing your property? I’m still not talking about literal ducks, but I personally believe that decoys might be a viable option anyway.



  • Were you surprised by the absence of literal ducks in the story? And when I say “literal ducks” I mean literal ducks.