“Then Duck left Mr. Tomkin’s farm and went to swim in Glacier Lake, just like he’d always wanted.” Mommy looked up from the last page, but Clara wasn’t sleeping.
“And then what did Duck do?” Clara asked.
“That’s all there is.”
“Duck died?” Mommy had explained about dying on the way home from visiting Grandpa. Clara didn’t really understand, but it made her sad.
“No sweetie, Duck didn’t die, this is just the end of the story.”
“Oh.” Clara thought about that. “Can’t you make more story?”
After Daddy moved out, Mommy started saying we’ll see when she really meant no. Clara nibbled on her fingernail. Mommy leaned down and kissed Clara’s forehead.
* * *
There was something silver on top of Clara’s dresser when she woke up the next morning. It was a metal bird about the size of a teddy bear. She hopped out of bed for a closer look. It was Duck. Clara picked him up with both hands. Duck felt cold.
“I see you found Duck.” Mommy’d come in when Clara wasn’t looking.
“I thought Duck was a duck duck.” Clara frowned.
“Like at the park?”
“Well, this is a special duck, made out of little metal parts.”
“So not a real duck,” Clara said. She was confused. How could something be not-real if she could hold it?
“A different kind of duck.” Mommy smiled. “I made pancakes.”
Clara put Duck down and ran downstairs.
* * *
At bedtime, Mommy came in with a new book. “Ready for your bedtime story? Did you brush your teeth?”
“Uh-huh. Duck brushed his teeth, too.”
(Duck hadn’t used toothpaste like Clara had.)
“Okay. Frog lived in a muddy green-brown pond—”
“NO! Duck wants more story about Duck!” Clara sat up in bed and pulled Duck onto her lap.
“Well, now that Duck is here, he can make his own story.”
Clara looked at Duck. “He wants you to do it.”
“Don’t you want to hear about Frog? I think Duck will like it.”
Clara conferred with Duck, and they decided to hear about Frog.
“Frog was green on top and yellow on the bottom, and he was bumpy everywhere but on his feet—”
“Did he have tentacles?” Clara had seen animals on TV that had tentacles.
“No. Frogs don’t have tentacles.”
Clara pursed her lips. “Duck thinks that Frog should have tentacles.”
Mommy laughed. “Well, if Duck thinks so, I suppose we can give Frog some tentacles.”
* * *
Mommy had enough story about Frog to last for a whole week. In the end, Frog found a princess that turned into a girl-Frog when he bit her.
“Will there be more Frog?”
Mommy went downstairs. Clara’s room was mostly dark, but she had a nightlight that looked like a firefly. Daddy gave it to her to keep all the monsters away. Monsters were scared of light.
Clara sat up in bed and grabbed Duck off the bedside table. Duck was cold, so Clara held him against her chest with both hands. The metal warmed up and a whirring noise started coming from Duck’s chest. Duck stretched his neck up towards Clara’s face.
Clara yelped and tossed Duck away. He bounced twice and rolled almost to the edge of the bed, but he didn’t fall off.
“Sorry,” Clara told Duck, “I didn’t know you could move.”
Duck kicked his legs in the air. He was upside-down.
Clara inched toward him and flipped him upside-up. Duck waddled to the middle of the bed, then back to the edge. He looked down at the ground, then up at Clara. She lowered him to the floor.
“Can’t you use your wings for that?” Clara asked.
Duck didn’t answer. He wobbled his way over to the firefly light. When he got there, he tucked his beak under his wing and lifted one foot. Clara got back under the covers, and Clara and Duck both went to sleep.
* * *
When Clara woke up, Duck was still sleeping by the firefly light, which never looked as bright in the morning. Maybe the firefly got tired and couldn’t shine so bright, or maybe there weren’t so many monsters in the daytime. Clara got out of bed, and when her feet hit the floor with a thump, Duck took his head out from under his wing.
“Good morning, Duck,” Clara said.
The floor was cold on Clara’s feet, so she went to get socks. She didn’t notice until she closed the sock drawer that there was something on top of the dresser. It was Frog, sitting right where Duck had been last week. Frog had three delicate tentacles growing out of his back. Clara frowned. She thought the tentacles would be closer to Frog’s mouth. It wasn’t Frog’s fault though, he was what he was. She picked Frog up and held him until he was warm enough to move.
“Good morning, Frog.”
Frog didn’t answer, so she put him down next to Duck. Maybe Duck could teach Frog better manners.
* * *
Every week, Clara got a different story. When the story was over, a new metal animal would appear on the dresser. She had quite a collection now: Duck, Frog, the three-legged Unicorn, Cat, and the pot-bellied Rhino. Mostly the animals were happy, but Duck wanted to find some water and go swimming like he did in his story. Clara asked if she could put Duck in the bathtub or the sink, but Mommy said that Duck had legs so he should walk, not swim. It didn’t make much sense. Clara had legs, and she had to take a shower every day. Maybe sometime when Mommy wasn’t looking, Duck could go swimming.
“Are you ready to go?” Mommy stuck her head into Clara’s room.
Mommy took Clara to visit Adam. He was okay for a boy, and sometimes he had good toys.
“Wanna see my new toy?” Adam asked. “It’s a duck.”
Clara liked ducks.
Adam went to his room and came back with Duck. How had Duck followed her here? “That’s my Duck!”
“Nah-unh. My dad bought it for me yesterday.”
Clara thought about that. She didn’t know that you could buy Duck, she thought Mommy made him. Mommy made toys at work.
“Make it move,” Clara said.
“Can so.” Clara reached over and grabbed Duck out of Adam’s hands. It was bigger than her Duck, and it was partly made out of plastic instead of all metal. She hugged it until it got warm, but nothing happened.
Adam stared at her. “Well, make it move.”
“You have to heat it up.”
“Oh, well that’s a dumb way to do it.” Adam snatched the toy back and headed for the kitchen. Clara followed him. They put Duck-that-wasn’t-Duck into the microwave and closed the door.
“Microwaves make things hot,” Adam told her.
Clara nodded. She knew that.
Adam pushed a button and the floor of the microwave started to spin. At first, nothing happened, but then sparks started dancing on the duck’s wings. Clara got scared and ran out of the kitchen, and Adam was right behind her. Eventually the microwave beeped.
Adam got out crayons and paper for both of them, and they sat on the floor and drew pictures. They didn’t say anything about the duck, but they looked over at the kitchen from time to time. A not-so-nice smell was coming from in there.
“Hey!” It was Adam’s dad, and the voice came from the kitchen. When he came into the living room, his face was all red and he was holding the floor of the microwave. Duck-that-wasn’t-Duck was partway melted.
“We wanted it to move, so we had to heat it up,” Clara explained.
Adam’s dad had nothing to say to that.
* * *
“Mommy, where do my story animals come from?” Clara asked.
“I make them.”
“But Adam had Duck at his house, and it wasn’t really Duck, but it was like Duck, and we melted him.”
“Yes, Adam’s dad told me about that.” Mommy tried to look serious, but the corners of her mouth twitched, so Clara could tell she wasn’t really mad. Mommy’d already told Clara not to use the microwave anymore.
“Remember when you came to work with me?”
“Yeah.” Clara tried to remember, but it was a long time ago. Mommy made toys for work, which meant that Clara stayed at Daddy’s house during the daytime. She loved being with Daddy, but she didn’t like Daddy’s house because he mostly watched TV and sometimes Linda was there and Daddy always told her to call Linda ‘mom’ and she wasn’t.
“I make toys for lots of little kids at work, but your toys are special.”
“Adam’s duck didn’t move.”
“It’s harder to make them move, so I only do it for you.” Mommy hugged Clara. It was like being wrapped in hot chocolate with marshmallows. Clara snuggled in closer.
“Tell me a story.”
“Chimpanzee lived in the jungle.”
“Is Chimpanzee a boy or a girl?”
“Can she talk?”
Mommy stopped for a long time to think about that. Her fingers twitched the same way they did when she was trying to remember the recipe for cinnamon rolls, which were Clara’s favorite.
Then Mommy’s hand relaxed and she said, “Yes, Chimpanzee could talk.”
* * *
“Good morning, Duck! Good morning, Frog! Good morning, Unicorn and Cat and Rhino!”
The story animals nodded. Then, since it was Monday, Clara went to the dresser to see if Chimpanzee was there. She was. Clara hugged her until the metal wasn’t cold, then put her down on the floor.
“Good morning, Chimpanzee,” Clara said.
She turned to go downstairs for breakfast.
Clara turned to look at Chimpanzee. The other animals were looking at her, too. Duck nodded, then looked at Clara and nodded again. He was trying to show Chimpanzee that when Clara said good morning, animals were supposed to nod. All the other animals had learned that way.
Clara thought that maybe she had imagined Chimpanzee saying good morning, so she tested it out again. “Good morning, animals!”
All the animals except Chimpanzee nodded the way Duck had taught them.
Chimpanzee said, “Good morning!”
Duck nipped at Chimpanzee’s leg and demonstrated nodding again. Clara laughed, and then she felt bad. What if Chimpanzee was hurt? But Chimpanzee seemed okay — she was looking back and forth between Clara and Duck. Clara had an idea.
“Good morning, Chimpanzee!” Clara said one more time, nodding as she spoke.
“Good morning!” Chimpanzee nodded while she answered.
They both looked at Duck. Chimpanzee nodded. Duck nodded. Clara smiled.
“Waffles are ready!” Mom called up from downstairs. Clara picked up Chimpanzee and ran out so fast she almost fell down.
“Chimpanzee can talk.” Clara held Chimpanzee up for Mommy to see, but Chimpanzee didn’t say anything.
“She’s shy.” Clara added. “Can she have some waffles, too?”
“I don’t think she’s very hungry.”
Clara put a big bite of waffle into her mouth. Her cheeks puffed out and it took a long time to chew it up and the sugary syrup made her drool a little.
“Smaller bites, young lady,” Mom said.
Daddy used to say that. Clara didn’t talk about Daddy much because it was too sad. She picked up Chimpanzee and hugged her. Chimpanzee could talk. Maybe Clara could talk, too.
“I miss Daddy.”
“I know sweetie, I know.”
“Is he coming back home?”
Mommy leaned over and cut Clara’s waffles into small bits that soaked up the syrup and turned squishy. “We’ll see.”
* * *
After Chimpanzee, all the new animals talked. Chimpanzee taught them to say good morning and taught them to nod while they said it. Duck stood off to the side. He still nodded, but the animals didn’t pay attention to him anymore.
“Good morning, animals!”
The old animals nodded. The new animals called out in unison, “Good morning, Clara!”
Clara went downstairs and ate toast with strawberry jam for breakfast, and when she came back upstairs, Chimpanzee was talking to Tiger. “There’s something wrong with Duck.”
Clara wanted to stay outside the door and listen, but she had to get her backpack to take to Daddy’s house. Mommy dropped her off there on the way to work.
“Yes, Duck is—”
Tiger stopped when Clara stepped into the room.
“Duck is what?” Clara asked.
Tiger and Chimpanzee looked at each other.
“Duck is old,” Chimpanzee said.
“All he can do is walk and nod,” Tiger said.
Rabbit, who had two heads that always spoke in unison, came over and added, “Duck is boring.”
Duck was in the corner, wobbling from one foot to the other and nodding very slowly. Duck was sad. That made Clara sad, too.
“Be nice to Duck,” Clara told the new animals. “It’s okay he’s old.”
Chimpanzee, Tiger, and Rabbit looked at her.
“Like Grandpa,” Clara added. She’d taken the new animals to the hospital to visit Grandpa a few days ago.
Duck nodded faster. The new animals didn’t say anything, but Chimpanzee nodded.
“Clara, time to go!” Mommy called up the stairs. Clara put Chimpanzee and Duck into her backpack.
* * *
“Daddy!” Clara hugged Daddy’s leg.
She and Daddy and Mommy stood on Daddy’s doorstep. Mommy and Daddy talked for a minute but Clara didn’t pay attention. They always said the same thing and it was boring. After a while, Daddy pulled her off his leg. He took her inside and sat down at the kitchen table. Clara wanted to sit in his lap, but there wasn’t room. She climbed into one of the other chairs and dragged her backpack up with her.
“So, how’s my munchkin today?”
“You want breakfast?”
“Mommy fed me breakfast already,” Clara said. Daddy didn’t make good breakfast anyway. He made Fruit Loops.
Daddy left the table. Clara opened her backpack and took her animals out and put them on the table.
“Daddy, say good morning to Chimpanzee and Duck.”
Daddy didn’t turn around, he was digging through the refrigerator for the orange juice. “Good morning.”
Duck nodded. Chimpanzee didn’t say anything. She was shy around new people.
“Duck wants to go swimming in the sink,” Clara told Daddy.
“That doesn’t sound like a good idea.” Daddy handed Clara her juice. “You sure do like those toys Gina’s been making.”
Gina is what Daddy called Mommy.
“She makes them out of stories so that the story doesn’t have to stop,” Clara said. She took a big sip of orange juice. “It has pulp in it.”
“Sorry, sweetie. Linda forgot and got the pulpy kind.”
Linda got the pulpy kind on purpose. Some mornings Linda was still here when Mommy dropped Clara off, and Clara saw her drinking nasty pulpy juice.
Clara put the cup back down on the table too quickly and juice sloshed onto her hand. Daddy’d started reading the paper, and didn’t notice.
“I’m gonna go wash my hands.”
Daddy nodded. Clara stood up. Duck stepped toward the edge of the table. He wanted to come too. Clara picked him up with her not-so-sticky hand. Chimpanzee curled up on the table and put her head down for a nap.
Clara went into the bathroom and locked the door. She put Duck on the floor and used both hands to move her stool over to the front of the sink. Duck nodded. Clara picked Duck up again and moved him to the counter next to the sink. Standing on her tiptoes, Clara reached over and turned the water on. She washed the orange juice off her hand.
When she was done, she turned the knob to cold and pulled up the little metal thing that made the bottom of the sink close. The sink filled up with cool water. Duck watched and nodded. Clara turned the water off when the sink was filled up to the hole that kept it from overflowing.
“Okay Duck, you can swim now.”
Duck stepped toward the sink.
“Wait!” Clara put her hand between Duck and the sink. “Is it thirty minutes since you ate breakfast?”
Duck nodded. Mommy said you weren’t supposed to swim right after you eat or you might get something and then something else would happen. Clara didn’t really remember, but she knew you were supposed to wait even if you didn’t want to. So it was good that Duck hadn’t had orange juice with her.
Duck slid into the sink. He splashed around in the water. His tail jerked back and forth and his legs flailed around—
“You okay in there?” Daddy called from the other side of the door. “You’ve been washing your hands for a long time.”
The doorknob rattled. “Come on out and keep me company while I fold some laundry.”
Duck was still in the sink, but he’d stopped swimming. Clara hopped down from the stool and unlocked the door. Then she got back up on the stool and reached for Duck.
“Time to come out.”
Before she could grab Duck, Daddy pulled her away from the sink.
“Clara! What are you doing?” He pushed in the metal thing, and the bottom of the sink opened, and the water drained away. Duck didn’t move. “Don’t these things run on electricity? You can’t put them in water. You could’ve hurt yourself!”
Daddy was angry. It made Clara scared.
“Didn’t Gina tell you not to put them into water? What’s wrong with her?”
Clara hated it when Daddy complained about Mommy. She started to cry.
Daddy rubbed his hand up and down her back. “Shhh…Don’t cry. You scared me, that’s all. Promise you won’t put any more of these…things…into the water.”
Clara nodded. Her face was wet and sticky, and her nose started to run. She buried her face in Daddy’s shirt. He held her for a minute, then lifted her down from the stool. Duck was still in the sink.
“Come on, Duck. Time to get out of the sink.”
Duck didn’t nod.
“Daddy, what’s wrong with Duck?”
“I don’t think Duck liked the water.”
“Oh no, Duck had fun, he likes swimming. He’s just tired.”
Daddy reached into the sink with a towel and wrapped Duck inside. He patted Duck dry and gave him to Clara. Duck was cold.
“Oh, he just got too cold. That’s why he couldn’t get out of the sink.”
Daddy bent down and kissed Clara on the forehead. “Come help me with the laundry.”
Clara liked folding laundry — she got to match up all the socks while they were all warm from the dryer. They passed the kitchen table on their way to the living room, and Chimpanzee was still sleeping. Clara put Duck on the table as they went by.
* * *
“Mommy, Duck stopped moving,” Clara said. She took Chimpanzee out of her backpack first, and put her on the floor before getting Duck out.
Mommy took Duck out of Clara’s hands. “Did Duck try to go swimming?”
Clara nodded. “He got too cold, Mommy.”
Chimpanzee paced back and forth on the floor. Mommy didn’t say anything.
“Can you fix him?” Clara asked.
Mommy set Duck down next to Chimpanzee and pulled Clara into her arms. “No. I can make a new duck, but I can’t fix Duck.”
Chimpanzee poked Duck gently with one finger. Clara swallowed hard. “Did Duck die?”
“Well, Duck was a toy, not a real duck.”
“Duck was real Duck.”
A tear rolled out of the corner of Clara’s eye and down along the side of her nose. She wiped the wet off her face which made her hand wet so she rubbed it on Mommy’s shirt. Mommy stroked Clara’s hair.
Clara thought about Duck in the sink. “He liked swimming.”
Mommy nodded. “Good.”
* * *
That night, instead of story time, Clara had a funeral for Duck. All the animals came, the new ones and the old ones. Mommy came, too.
“Duck was a good Duck,” Clara said. “He always wanted to swim like he did in the story that Mommy told, and he did swim, and he liked it, even though it wasn’t good for him.”
Clara sniffled and started to cry. “Mommy can’t fix Duck. He can’t walk or nod any more. . .”
Mommy put her hand on Clara’s shoulder. “It’s sad to lose someone you love, but Duck was old, and he had a good life. Sometimes even good things come to an end, like bedtime stories.”
“This is the end of Duck’s story,” Clara said.
The animals bowed their heads. Clara reached out and stroked Duck’s wing.
“Goodnight, Duck,” Clara said, and all of them nodded: the animals, old and new, and Mommy, and Clara, too.
Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Austin, Texas. She is a 2006 graduate of Clarion West, and this story is her first fiction publication. Check out her website at: http://carolineyoachim.com