Fragile Duck

Fiction
Greg Metcalf


Photo Credit: Dubravka Franz/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Cyndi stood in the study section of the dorm room with tears in her eyes and a bag of bread in her hand. “Are they out there?”

“No one’s there.” Jenn closed the door to the outlying suite room they shared with four other women.

“We have to feed the ducks.”

Jenn moved forward and hugged Cyndi. Jenn was cold and damp from being outside, but Cyndi pressed in close, wrapping her arms over Jenn’s shoulders, dangling the bag of bread down her back.

“What’s wrong?”

“All the ducks are getting cold and wet.”

So far that fall the weather had been perfect. Even when it rained, the rains were warm like the summer rains the girls remembered from home. It was late in autumn, though, and the cool and the rain had combined. Jenn had been caught in it unprepared after a long lecture and quick-walked back to their dorm without a jacket. She was still shivering. “Let me get dressed.”

“Hurry.”

Jenn went through another doorway into the sleeping section of their dorm room and changed into a dry shirt. She pulled a coat out of the closet for the first time since she’d put it there the day of freshman orientation when they’d moved in. She put on a hat that was so light red it was nearly pink, circled by a flimsy brim. Jenn knew the hat looked a little silly, but she didn’t care when she pulled it tight over her wet hair and felt an aura of heat squeeze down around her head.

When she came back out, Cyndi was turned toward her. Fresh tears drowned her eyes and the bag of bread dangled against her leg. “We have to feed the ducks.” Cyndi laughed. When she laughed, she blinked, and when she blinked tears fell.

“Okay, okay.”

Surprisingly, the suite was empty. Their suitemates weren’t crowded around like they owned everything, the way they usually were. Cyndi noticed, though, a new poster they had put on the wall—Justin Bieber without his shirt on. A cute boy, no doubt, Cyndi thought, but they probably like his music, too.

Outside their dorm, the rain still fell heavily but in tiny drops making it seem like a light rain though it quickly soaked Cyndi’s hair since she hadn’t worn a hat. Their shoes squeaked through the grass as they walked toward the cover of a thin stretch of woods that lined the bank of a wide, slow-moving river. Cyndi led Jenn a short way till they reached a path that led to a pavilion on the river’s bank.

Cyndi stood still and reached back for Jenn’s arm, pulling her close. “Look.” In a little inlet, over a dozen ducks floated, huddled together, in still water that appeared to lift up in a mist from the splashing of the fine rain. “They’re getting all wet.”

“They’re ducks,” Jenn said.

“It’s so cold.”

The ducks, tamed by years of exposure to animal-friendly college students, flew-hopped out of the water and onto the grass before Cyndi even opened the bag of bread. Cyndi handed Jenn a few slices then quickly went to work shredding the bread into small pieces which turned wet in her hands. The ducks billed mouths gaped open. Cyndi tossed chunks of bread into the air, watching carefully to be sure no duck went without. “They were so hungry.”

“Come out of the rain.” Jenn had moved under the pavilion and a group of ducks had followed. She sat on the table of the picnic bench and rolled her bread into spheres then aimed at a duck mouth and shot, cheering herself and the duck when one went in.

“No, I want to get wet with them.”

After Jenn threw her last ball of bread into a mouth, her ducks were still quacking. “I need more.”

Cyndi looked into the bag of bread. It was more than half gone and her ducks were still quacking and crowding at her feet, brushing against her legs. She could feel the heaviness of their wet feathers through her jeans. She pulled out three slices and carried them over to Jenn who stepped down from the bench and reached out from under the pavilion for them. “Don’t go too fast.”

“Why? Will they get stomachaches?”

“We’re almost out.” Cyndi had to lure her ducks back to her spot on the grass as they’d followed her over and joined Jenn’s ducks. She waved a whole slice to get their attention, then started shredding it into even smaller pieces than before. Cyndi was worried about a couple of timid ducks who hadn’t gotten their share, so she used a diversion strategy. She scattered a few small pieces onto an empty patch of grass. When the more aggressive ducks hopped ahead for them, she threw a couple of large pieces back behind that the timid, trailing ducks could have for themselves. One of the timid ducks, though, must have also been stupid because it continually went without, too slow to get to the food first and unable to catch onto Cyndi’s plans no matter how much she coddled to it. She tried walking straight for it, but while the other ducks barely noticed her walking through, it would get frightened by her and hop away.

“I’m out again,” Jenn said.

“I’m out, too.” Cyndi said which was nearly true because the bag was empty and all she had left were the three pieces in her hands.

The little duck Cyndi was trying to feed looked almost exactly like the other ducks. It was slightly smaller and had a rattling little quack, but Cyndi had to keep her eye on it to not lose it in the group. By then, the whole pack of them had wandered quite a way down the river bank: Cyndi chasing her little duck that would look back, quacking its rattling little quack for food, but hopping away from her, and the rest of the ducks, quacking, following at her feet.

She only had one chance left. She took her last piece and cut it in half, held one half in her mouth and shredded the other half into a bunch of pieces. She tossed two handfuls back behind her toward the pavilion where Jenn was sitting, watching. All the ducks chased the bait. The timid duck would have had to pass Cyndi to get to the food and was too frightened, so it was left alone. Cyndi threw the half of a slice practically right on top of it. The little duck hopped out of the way, but then turned back, recognizing the food. Cyndi watched him get several nice nibbles before the other ducks caught on and stole it away.

“I got him,” Cyndi said, joining Jenn under the pavilion.

“I saw.”

“He was scared of me. I had to trick him.”

“You’re soaked.”

“Should we buy more?”

“No, they have duck food they have to eat. We should get dry.”

Landing on the roof above them, the rain sounded heavier, the drops seemed to have fattened. It looked like a long way back to the dorm. Cyndi wiped drops of moisture from her arms and hugged herself. She was beginning to shiver. “Let’s wait until it lets up a little.”

“You were just standing in it.”

“But I’m cold.”

“I have a great idea. Let’s go straight to the cafeteria and warm up with hot chocolate before we eat.”

Cyndi said nothing but hugged herself tighter.

“C’mon, we’ll run.” Jenn jumped off the picnic bench and grabbed hold of Cyndi’s hand. Jenn pulled her out into the rain and started running toward their dorm. Cyndi let herself be tugged along.

*

They had three cups of hot chocolate each that Jenn had to keep refilling because Cyndi refused to move from their table in the back of the cafeteria after realizing she smelled like wet duck. Jenn had to make two trips to bring over trays for dinner after Cyndi made the firm argument that since Jenn had sat up on the bench where it was dry and the ducks hadn’t touched her, she didn’t smell like wet duck near as much.

After dinner, a pair of boys, one of whom was wearing a band uniform and towing a humongous instrument case, tried to catch their elevator, but the girls, knowing their wet-duck scent would fill the cramped enclosure, repeatedly tapped the door close button so they could go up alone. They giggled the whole way about having to close the doors practically in the two boys’ faces but stopped when they opened the suite room door and found Anne and Leslie, two of their suitemates, inside.

“Hi Jenn. Hi Cyndi,” Anne said.

“Hi.” Jenn and Cyndi both said, and moved slowly in.

“We were just headed down to dinner.”

“Oh. We just got back,” Jenn said. Anne and Leslie sat, side by side, at the study table. A shirtless Justin Bieber stared out from the wall between them. “We were feeding the ducks.”

“In the rain?” Leslie said.

“That’s why I’m wet,” Cyndi explained, pressing her shoulder into Jenn. Jenn couldn’t hold Cyndi back. She told the two girls to enjoy their dinner and walked past them to the room with Cyndi nodding and following behind.

*

Cyndi and Jenn sat at their respective study tables, their backs to each other. They allotted two hours every weeknight after dinner to studying, but Cyndi had trouble focusing with Anne and the others gathering in the suite room to go down to dinner. Even after they left and the suite room quieted, Jenn’s mouse-like movements: shuffling papers and lifting books, kept Cyndi distracted. Much as Cyndi loved her, Jenn just didn’t understand how college friendships worked. If she hadn’t pushed on her back, Jenn might have spent hours after dinner discussing feeding the ducks with them—as if it were any of their business. Jenn didn’t understand that suitemates weren’t the same as roommates. She had been the same way in high school, thinking she had to be friends with everyone. Cyndi was civil with the other girls in the suite like she would be with anyone, but that was enough. Like she told Jenn, there’s a reason why they give out separate keys, one for the suite room and one for the room just the two of them shared. Cyndi decided she’d have to discuss the matter with Jenn again after their study time, and deciding that, calmed her enough to get her work done.

Later, behind their locked door, Cyndi and Jenn were sitting together in their bedroom watching an old Friends episode on TV. “What do you think they think of me?” Cyndi asked during a commercial.

“Who?”

“Our suitemates.”

“I don’t know.”

“But what do you think?”

Jenn shrugged. “They don’t really know you.”

“They don’t really know you, either.”

“I know.”

“Do they talk about me?” Cyndi stared at Jenn.

Jenn didn’t look over. “Nothing mean.”

“What do they say?”

“Nothing.”

“What do they say?”

“Cyndi, don’t start getting mad. They just wonder why you don’t talk to them.”

“I talk to them.”

“Okay.”

“I do talk to them.”

“I don’t want to fight, Cyndi.”

“Oh my God. You’re friends with them.”

“Cyndi…”

“Well, I don’t need to be friends with them. I only need to be friends with you.” Cyndi turned back to the TV. She put her feet up on the dresser. Then she got up and went to sit on her bed. She was trying not to cry.

“Cyndi, you’re my best friend. I hardly even talk to them, just a little.”

“It’s fine. It’s really fine.” Cyndi sat on her bed looking around for something to occupy herself, a book to look through or a magazine, but nothing was near. She crossed and uncrossed her arms. Jenn came over and sat next to her. She put an arm around her. Cyndi began to laugh and when she laughed, she blinked. When she blinked, tears fell.

Jenn hugged her. “You’re my best friend.”

“I know.” She tried to laugh again but laughing kept making her cry. She ducked her head into Jenn’s shoulder and pressed in close. “Besides,” Cyndi said, remaining pressed in under Jenn’s arm, tasting the cloth of her sweater and feeling her heat on her open lips, “just because some computer threw us all into the same dorm doesn’t mean anything.”

“That’s true.”

Cyndi lifted her head up. “It just means we share a bathroom.” She wiped her eyes, stood up, grabbed her toothbrush kit from the top shelf of her closet, and left. While she was in the bathroom brushing her teeth, one of the other girls came in, and nodded at Cyndi so that Cyndi had to nod back, rejuvenating Cyndi’s irritation, so that when she walked back into the bedroom and saw Jenn, she scowled.

Jenn grinned and left the room with her toothbrush in her hand, a dollop of white paste already squeezed onto its bristles. Cyndi was already lying in bed when Jenn returned. “You’re not mad, are you?” Jenn took off her shirt and bra and pulled on the long T she slept in.

“No.”

“Are you sure?” Jenn changed into her pajama pants.

“Yes.”

Jenn reached over and grabbed her pillow. “If you’re not mad, then I’m coming over.”

“I’m not mad.”

As Jenn walked by and flipped off the room light, Cyndi reached over to turn on her bedside lamp. The old lamp had a thick, dark green shade. It had seemed very retro and clever when she and Jenn picked it out at a vintage furniture store on campus but turning it on and off required Cyndi twisting her arm into a pretzel to get under the rigid shade. Then she had to pinch the greasy knob that was just larger than a toothpick, all without touching the bulb which could burn enough to leave a mark. During the flash of black between the one light going off and the other going on, Jenn materialized at the side of the bed and now appeared in dark green. Cyndi pulled open the covers and slid over.

“What should we listen to?” Jenn crawled under feet first.

“You pick.”

Jenn looked over at Cyndi and grinned in the green dark. When Cyndi picked, the music was liable to be anything, but Jenn always picked Yanni, her favorite music for sleeping. Anytime Cyndi said “you pick” it meant she wanted to listen to Yanni, too. As the music began, Jenn turned the light off. When the electric violins kicked in, the two girls were lying back, and the room had reappeared out of black, illumined by the faint star and campus light that seeped in through the blinds.

Cyndi slid her feet into a more comfortable spot.

“When you move your feet,” Jenn said, “it makes me miss Patches, my kitty from home. She would sleep on my bed all night. She would stand up and stretch, then curl right back up against me.”

“You shouldn’t talk about missing your cat while you’re sleeping with me.”

“Why?”

“It might hurt my feelings.”

“I love you more than my cat.”

“You shouldn’t say you love me while we’re in bed together.”

“What about if I just give you a kiss on the cheek, then?”

“Why don’t you go give one of your other friends a kiss on the cheek?”

Jenn tipped her head to the side. Cyndi blinked up at the ceiling, faint traces of light shined in her eyes. “Are you being jealous?”

“I’m not jealous. Have all the friends you like, I’m only having one.”

“I think a kiss is just the thing to keep you from being jealous.”

“Don’t tease me; I’m not jealous. And no kissing, not while we’re in bed together.”

“Why? I kiss my mom. I kiss my dad. I kiss my cat.”

“Do you tell your cat you love her?”

“Of course.”

“You’re not supposed to do that.”

“Why?”

“Because, it’s not a person.”

“You’re a person.” Jenn could see in the shadows of Cyndi’s face that she was trying not to grin.

“I’m your friend.”

“So? I still love you, don’t I?”

“It’s not the same.”

“Well, just let me.” Jenn leaned up onto her elbow. “I need to kiss something.”

“Something? Is that supposed to make me feel good?” Cyndi squeezed closer to the wall as Jenn’s face stretched toward her. “Stop it,” Cyndi said. “Look, I know we’re in college and we’re supposed to try being gay so we can say we did it later, but I’m not trying with you. You’re my friend.”

Their giggling filled the quiet as one Yanni song ended and then another began.

“We’re not trying being gay if I kiss you just on the cheek.”

“Isn’t it enough that we sleep together almost every night?”

“Exactly, so why can’t I kiss you?”

“That doesn’t make any sense. That didn’t add anything to your side of the argument. You’re just acting like it did.”

“Okay. So can I?” Jenn said.

“Fine. But don’t make a sound at the end.”

“Why not?”

“Just put your lips on my cheek, then take them off.”

“Why can’t I make a sound?”

“Because, I’ll laugh.”

“I’m making a sound at the end.”

“No! Then I don’t want you to do it. If you do it, then it’s rape.”

“It’s not rape if I steal a kiss.”

“Eww. Don’t say ‘steal a kiss.’ Oh my God. That was so gross.”

“Well, I have to make a sound at the end. Otherwise it’s not a kiss.”

“I don’t even know why you need to kiss me while we’re fighting.”

“We’re not fighting. Besides, I still love you even while we’re fighting.”

“Now you can’t kiss me because you just said that you love me again.”

Jenn grabbed hold of Cyndi’s head with a hand on top and one under her chin. She pressed her nose and lips against the side of her face. Cyndi did not pull away, as a full, slow refrain of mingling violins and keyboards played. Jenn puckered her lips and made a loud popping sound that left Cyndi’s cheek tingling.

“I can’t believe it,” Cyndi said, leaning her head against Jenn’s. “You just raped me, a little.”

“Wasn’t that a nice way to end the day?”

“Yes.”

“Whose turn is it?” Jenn asked.

“Mine.”

“Really? It doesn’t seem like it’s your turn again.”

“Well, it is.” Cyndi turned onto her side toward Jenn and slid down the bed. When Jenn didn’t move, Cyndi picked her arm up and wrapped it around her head, then wrapped her own arm around Jenn’s waist and squeezed her face in under Jenn’s arm. Jenn still hadn’t moved, so Cyndi reached over again and, grabbing Jenn’s forearm, began pulling her hand through her hair. Finally, the hand started moving on its own, softly petting its way from her forehead, through her hair, down to her neck, and across her shoulder. Cyndi squeezed in comfortably against Jenn.

“I’m only doing it for a little while,” Jenn said.

“Okay. For a long little while, though.”

pencil

Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel; Hibernation, a YA thriller; and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has four other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and is forthcoming in Confrontation. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

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