They feigned plausible gratitude, our parents. Proffered a thank you, of a passable sort, to our beaming Aunt Pearl and Uncle Bob. My sister was nine. I was six.
"Such a thoughtful gift," Dad lied, through a crocodile grin. "A duckling for Easter. Christ, yes."
"From Woolworth's," Uncle Bob beamed. "Picked it out myself. The leader of the flock."
"The baddest ass duckling of the bunch, huh?" Dad said. "You do Easter right, Bob."
Aunt Pearl winked. She clapped her hands. "So precious."
"And so yellow," our mother added, studying the garishly dyed creature standing before us.
The duck cocked its fuzzy head, looked up at our faces, then pooped a puddle.
"What will we name it?" my sister asked.
"Anything but Donald," I said.
"Let's get to know the damn thing first." Dad snapped. A pet with a name being so much more problematic to make disappear.
Beyond the gymnastics of gratitude platitudes, a convincing competency for life-sustaining transportation was required. To relocate this projectile defecating bird to our home, three hours due north. An old cardboard Wolverine Boot box was enlisted, outfitted with a highball cocktail glass half-full of Aunt Pearl and Uncle Bob's cloudy well water.
Wedged in the far back of our station wagon, the duckling survived the trip with aplomb. Dad, not so much. The elapsed time the duck expended not peeping or shitting during the drive home summed to three non-consecutive minutes. The purpose of these brief respites, it seemed, being only to catch its breath.
It was springtime in northwestern Pennsylvania. Always a sensory buffet. Pungent earth. Thawing ground strained to soak up the melting mountains of lake effect snow. Clunky winter outerwear and boots, mildewy in the front closet, soon to be cleaned and packed away in the basement. Giving way to bright zippered windbreakers and new canvas sneakers.
"We need, of course, to find a proper home for the duck," Dad announced as we unloaded the station wagon. "Somewhere you can go visit."
My sister and I groaned like house pipes in a frozen mid-winter.
"Someplace like Mr. Toot's farm," Dad went on. "Now that would be the ticket."
Mr. Toot, a gregarious well-fed man in his seventies, in faded denim bib overalls, would deliver fresh eggs to our home each week. His nickname arose from the tenacious and noxious trail of soundless emittances he left lingering in his wake. Some not so soundless. I had never warmed to Mr. Toot. He scared me. Something a bit creepy about him. Something a shade sinister about that farm of his.
"Oh, let's let the duck grow a bit," our wistful mother said. "Keep it around for a little while."
Our parent's tension, an ever-present jackal, circled on the periphery.
"This duck could be a wonderful learning experience," Mom theorized.
Dad studied the banana-colored avian imposter waddling about inside the box.
"Where in Christ will we keep a duck?" Dad snapped. "This isn't a farm. Do you want to live on a farm? I think you've always wanted to live on a goddamn farm."
"Oh please," Mom sighed. "Always the dramatist."
"We don't even know what it eats," Dad went on.
"Bugs," I said.
"Perfect. Welcome to our goddamned farm."
That April ushered in a pulsing abundance of insects and all manner of tender plant life for our duckling to eat. Waddling about our tiny yard, it gorged. April also brought a moniker, at long last. A name for the ballooning duck. As it matured, into a handsome feathered specimen, its peeps periodically gave way to full throated quacks. Then regressed right back to high pitched peeps.
Peep Quack, it would be.
And such a popular fixture Peep Quack became among the roving youths of the neighborhood. Equally so for the assorted dogs. Stalking strays that came to learn our Peep Quack knew precisely how far it dared drift from its narrow getaway passage. Beneath the front porch.
To one kid in particular, Johnny Magestro, Peep Quack was like a well-tied fly to a rising trout. On a warm evening, Johnny snatched Peep Quack, clamping its beak shut, then sprinting into the haze and cloak of the setting sun.
The next morning, scant signs of Peep Quack could be found. Nary a peep, nor quack. The little blue plastic wading pool, empty. We scoured the neighborhood on our bikes. I considered peddling onward, never to return. To a place of less strife. A whole new life, perhaps a full block or more away from home.
Early the next morning, a muted tapping sounded at our front door. Face puffed and creased, and still in pajamas, I approached the tapping. I peered through the finger-streaked glass of our storm door. A frantic and squirming Peep Quack greeted me, feathers akimbo, clutched in the arms of one Johnny Magestro. Behind Johnny, stood his mother, quaking.
"Johnny has something for you," Johnny's mother stated. "He also has something to say to you."
"I found your duck," Johnny muttered.
"You stole his duck," his mother spit. "And what are you, Johnny? For stealing his duck."
"Sorry?" Johnny said, lower lip quivering. The same Johnny who would wear number 729478 on his orange jumpers. Having taken not another duck, but a young lover's life, one who had, at the fated moment, brought to mind Johnny's own mother. He'd fled, shredded by the prison's barbed wire, bloodhounds baying. Dodging through the snow slung pines and brilliant white winter blanketing. Snow only to then be turned crimson by the revolvers of Johnny's star badged pursuers. Crying out, as he'd succumbed, for his long-deceased mother. Begging her to at long last forgive him.
But at that moment, there at our door, I accepted both our duck and Johnny's apology, even if it had been put forth as a question. Peep Quack returned to its blissful rituals in the yard. Under my much more diligent eye.
One morning, as Memorial Day neared, Dad tested the waters for emerging features of a plan. A scheme he had been conjuring. Every Memorial Day, without sway, we would pile into the station wagon. Crates of flowers and shovels in tow, off to visit the graves of long-gone relatives. Young tender flowers in the damp earth that would represent new beginnings, fresh life. If not for having been planted at the base of headstones.
The cemetery, we could all concur, was beautiful. Sweeping green spaces, with old growths of deciduous trees, maples, elms and birches, serving sentry. And, as portrayed by our dad, pleasant, peaceful and welcoming bodies of water scattered throughout. Abundant ponds, teeming with ducks, ready to welcome a new resident to this web-footed utopia.
Memorial Day morning, Peep Quack was hoisted into the back of the station wagon amid the shovels and the plants. For certain, Peep Quack had outgrown the boot box. In lieu, we put into service a large red laundry basket. One through which Peep Quack could at least stick its beak and peek.
Lines of cars wound, serpentine, through the headstones, parked any which way. Extended families gathered in milling clusters. Oldsters to infants traversed about in cohesive clumps.
So distracted were the throngs, they did not notice the red laundry basket, or its feathered cargo. Dad carried the basket and curious contents to the largest pond's bank. Scores of resident ducks paddled closer, their interest piqued. Quacking conversations rose to near frenzy.
It was at that point that the crowds took some notice.
"I think that man is going to steal a duck," a voice whispered, "Give it to his whiny children."
And more yet cast their eyes toward the pond.
Peep Quack had by then taken to the water. Settled into a gentle paddle, eased deeper into the pond. The water surface frothed with circling ducks. Peep Quack wiggled its tail feathers in joyous gratitude for the welcome. To reciprocate, the presumed alpha duck of the pond clasped Peep Quack's neck with its beak, as though in a Vice Grip.
Peep Quack was going down. Served up as a cautionary tale to any future feathered interlopers.
Those paying their respects top loved ones had enclosed the pond all along its banks. They struggled and tussled for a clear view of the unfolding aquatic horror. My sister and I screamed. Dad hit the pond surface like a cannonball. Water to his waist, he stretched his arms, all of his fingers. He seized the bullying duck. Clutched it by its neck with both hands, as if a poisonous snake. Freed from a certain death, Peep Quack flapped and quacked frantically, paddling to the relative safety of shore.
Dad hurled the offending wing-clipped duck across the pond, only for it to restore its senses. It paddled back into the fray, furious. The melee resumed. Peep Quack preened its whip-sawed feathers on the shoreline with futility.
Dad emerged from the roiled pond, dripping of algae and profanities. Feathers stuck out of his shirt, which was festooned in full with duck droppings. There was even a feather in his hair, as though a quill pen sat perched behind his ear.
Dad snatched Peep Quack from the bank. Our duck was tossed underhanded, akin to a rugby ball, into the red plastic clothes basket.
"Everybody, get in the fucking car," he ordered. "Right now."
His shoes squishing like rope mops, Dad reached the station wagon. He shoved Peep Quack's basket into the back and slammed the tailgate, leaving the license plate dangling. Gravel and sod were flung about like shrapnel, as we blasted out of the cemetery, toward the road back home.
"That crazy bastard just stole a duck!" an old man in a felt Stetson yelled. More shouts of protest and ire erupted. Children sobbed.
A tornado of dust and swirling mayhem was left behind.
Our mother related the epic tale of Peep Quack to Mr. Toot one soupy summer day. Peep Quack, by then, was well entrenched in the yard. Contented, quite well nourished. Corpulent, one could say.
Dad had become resigned, silent on Peep Quack. Silent on pretty much everything. Our mother seemed to increasingly prefer to have her conversations with Mr. Toot. He spread neighborhood gossip like a liquored town crier.
"Tell you what," Mr. Toot said that swampy morning. "Here's an idea. I'll take Peep Quack out to my farm. There's a splendid pond. All the animal friends any duck could ever want."
He maneuvered a wooden toothpick about his mouth as he talked. Rested his hands atop his imposing belly, to await Mom's answer.
"Oh, my goodness," Mom said. She shot a glance toward me. I sat rapt in the corner.
"Well," Mom went on. "We are in fact getting some complaints. The city sent a letter. Some kind of permit we lack. Peep Quack being a farm animal, and all."
"Well, there you go," Mr. Toot grinned, as he gazed at Peep Quack through the window. As if an exclamation point, his stomach growled.
"Mr. Toot's farm," Dad later crowed in agreement. "Do I recall suggesting Mr. Toot's farm?"
My sister signed on to the plan post promise of a donkey ride.
Mr. Toot showed up the next week with a wood and wire chicken crate. Once contained, Peep Quack peered through the wire mesh and out of the back of the pickup truck. Then the truck vanished from sight, leaving a thick trail of exhaust, one befitting of Mr. Toot.
Fall approached. A fresh tinge of chill in the air. Burning firewood and decaying maple leaves tickled our frosty air passages. Mr. Toot would provide periodic updates on Peep Quack. To me, they didn't settle. Never quite landed right. I knew all of Peep Quack's ticks and quirks in intimate detail. Mr. Toot's colorful accounts sounded like some other farm creature all together.
During the summer, activities had kept us from venturing out to Mr. Toot's farm, for visits. School by then underway, we longed to visit our estranged duck. Before our boots and snow suits again filled the front closet.
Late one autumn day, Mr. Toot set our egg container on the kitchen counter. His tongue twirled a soggy toothpick. Mom made a play for an invitation to the farm. I was emceeing a Matchbox Car demolition derby in the front room. Still, I could grasp most of their conversation.
"You know," Mom began. "Winter's coming. Maybe we should come see Peep Quack. Before the snows fly."
I strained to listen. Mr. Toot at first held silent.
Then, it came.
"Well, a visit would be most lovely..." he began. "But I so hate to have to tell you this. I've meant to. Truly I have. It's just..."
"Oh dear. What in God's name has happened?" Mom blurted.
"An owl is what happened," Mr. Toot said. "Went and made a meal of your Peep Quack. It was indeed a plump and tasty looking bird. How could an owl resist?"
Blood shot to my cheeks. I knew about owls. Learned all about owls in school. How they could turn their heads full around, like a Mason jar lid. One hundred and eighty degrees. Even more. Could spin their heads around and look straight back, behind them. Spot their quarry from any and all angles. Razor-like claws. And their eyes. Their huge eyes rolled around like shooter marbles. Always in darkness they would strike.
Peep Quack was much bigger than any owl I had ever seen. And didn't owls prefer to fly away with their doomed prey clutched in their claws, to be savored in privacy? It would take a flying beast of prehistoric proportions to fly away with Peep Quack.
I was confused. I was devastated.
By instinct, I jumped on my spider bike. Peddled aimlessly, deep into the advancing darkness. The cool air of dusk burned my face. All of time seemed to blur. I thought of Dad smugly boasting that he knew Mr. Toot's farm was always the place for Peep Quack. I tried to imagine forgiving him. Forgiving myself.
Then I spotted, him. Mr. Toot.
He ambled in my direction on the sidewalk, in an odd gait, like some giant bird of prey. On the prowl, in darkness. Within his claw-like hands he clutched a dozen eggs pressed into his prodigious gut.
Mr. Toot nodded to me, as I approached.
I slammed the brake on my bike with a screeching skid. Rage leapt from my gut to my throat.
"You ate Peep Quack," I screamed. "Didn't you?"
Mr. Toot stared at me. His grin, etched and unchanging. Rigid, as though a beak.
"You murdered Peep Quack. Just to feed your fat, farting face."
I needed to be in motion or I would explode. I pumped the pedals past Mr. Toot toward home, tears welling.
As I approached our driveway, heart jumping, I coasted to make the turn. Dad stood on the stoop, hands on his hips, head hanging. I forced myself to look back, toward Mr. Toot. He still stood there, perched on the sidewalk. The back of his overalls to me.
Oh, but that head of his.
Mr. Toot's head had swiveled completely around. One hundred and eighty degrees in full, to face me square on. His large round eyes rolled like marbles. His lids blinked in a slow bat.
And with that frozen beak-like grin, he turned his face away and stepped on into the night.
has been a finalist for the American Fiction Short Story Award, with his story "The Owls of El Centro" appearing in American Fiction Volume 17
(New Rivers Press, 2019). Recent work has been published in Great Lakes Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Barren Magazine, Montana Mouthful
and others. He tweets at @WilliamBurtch2