It was the type of blazing August evening where you walk on the dead grass so your sneakers don’t melt on the asphalt when I took control of a duck. Where the duck’s mind went I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect it came to rest with Sir James Mire from down the street. From then on the cat would switch from day to day eating cat food and bread crumbs. I looked out from large, feather-portrait duck eyes, past the end of the beak, to my body crumpled on the grass, and noticed for the first time I have a large birthmark in the small of my back. That’s knowledge I could have gone without. The duck’s body was no more thrilled with the weather than I’d been, and I looked around hoping its instincts would lead me to a body of water where I could splash droplets on my feathers and watch them slide off, but the instincts went with the mind and the body was clueless. While working out how to waddle, feeling like a squatting turtle, I wondered why I’d taken control of a duck. The answer came to me when I figured out how to fly and found myself settled cozily in Maria Reneb’s backyard.
Since before I can remember I’d adored Maria, the feeling developing into a recognizable crush as soon as we entered middle school. Around that time we’d sort of realized we were supposed to hang with our own kind, me around the water fountains and soccer field, Maria around gaggles of girls and the lockers of school idols. By the time the second year of middle school started I was insanely in love with Maria. It didn’t matter we hadn’t spoken in months, or that a bunch of other boys liked her, or that she, like most of the girls, declared she hated boys, it just made it more the sweeter. Impossible romances have triumphed in their own times, in their own ways, some of them in better ways than others.
Floating on the pool cover, I kept an eye on the windows until I saw movement. There, over the bushes, was Maria in her bedroom. Being a duck, not only my heart fluttered, but I could feel every feather bouncing in excitement. Surely this was my purpose in life, to behold the goddess where she dwelt. Tearing myself from the cool water I gangly flew to her window to get a better view.
Oh, the beauty! Hair glistening and dripping from the shower, face alive with laughter, delicate feet walking around the pattern of the rug on her floor. She was on the phone with a friend, chatting away, in the throes of enjoyment. Maria, Maria! I squawked loudly, and she looked up as I waddled again past her window. Her face melted into a peculiar expression as she watched me strut back and forth. I had the urge to show off, so I took flight again and went way up into the sky, looking down at her family’s woodland estate. It was serene, beautiful and quiet. Very quiet. I flew closer to the ground, wondering where all the other birds were. I had only a brief glimpse of my fate through a back window, ornaments above the fireplace, before the shot rang out. A searing pain tore through my side, and I was burning hot then suddenly cold. Too cold to fly. I plummeted down to earth, my feathered eyes watching Maria lower her gun and hoist it back on the gun rack.
“Maria...” I cried, betrayed, and hit the ground. I’m just glad I didn’t have to feel that, being back in my own body, a little dizzy from the fall but unharmed. No one was around. My sneaker, fallen on the sidewalk, was getting soft. I pulled myself together and got to my feet, limping for a bit until my circulation resumed, and then I went home. Life had been interesting as a duck, but now that it was over, I needed a bath.
I saw Maria the next day at school, talking with the same animated face to one of the guys from the baseball team, and I got from the squealing her friends made they were going out. I passed the guy later in the hall and wished him good luck, he just stared at me. A few other people stared at me. Finally, around lunch, because I’d forgotten food anyway, I went into the bathroom to figure it out.
“No way!” I exclaimed, examining my face in the mirror. Little freckles had erupted all over my face like dark feathers defining a duck’s face. It made me look kind of cool. I hitched my backpack over my shoulder with a grin and sauntered away to find Maria.
“Hey Maria,” I said, putting my face good and close to hers.
“Uh... hi Mark,” she said, imitating my sing-song tone. Her friends giggled.
“I just gotta tell you, you’re freaky weird, but someday I’m gonna prove I’m better than he is.”
You can imagine I didn’t rehearse that at all, but I thought I sounded pretty cool. I was up. I was the man. As I walked away from her, keeping my head turned slightly, I saw the look she gave me when she realized why I looked so weird; it was the same look she wore before she shot the duck parading across her geraniums, and I had no doubt someday Maria was going to shoot me down. I’d be ready for her, though, starting with my dad’s B-B gun in the shed he thought he’d lost and the soda cans my little sister went through. Get ready, Maria, for the greatest shootout in the history of— wiggle! Crumb! I mean, in— quack! No, I swear the duck is with Sir James Mire, I— fish quack!