by Brett Van Valkenburg
June 5, 2016
Even at the deepest stage of his sleep cycle Paul could feel something tugging at his arm. His eyelids fluttered bringing the gloomy countenance of his sister into focus.
“Mom says you have to get up,” said Rebecca as she crossed her arms.
Paul’s chest heaved. He sat up. “I just had the most realistic dream. I was flying over a riv--”
“Yeah, well fly down to the kitchen and start the coffee,” she said half-listening as older sister’s are wont to do to their little brothers. Like Paul, she had her own list of chores to do in order to get breakfast ready before the guests started shuffling down the stairs in their pajamas. As she left her brother’s bedroom, she said, “Your pillow has a hole in it, butt-wipe. There’s down all over the carpet.”
Paul looked down. “It’s not all over the carpet.” He said quietly.
“Make sure you clean it up.”
He rolled his eyes as she left the room. Their relationship had grown tense following their parent's divorce. Paul’s mom had never held a job in her life and so to generate income she had turned their childhood home into a bed and breakfast—a home business that turned her children into the de facto staff.
Paul climbed out of bed. He pulled his pajamas off and flung them on the floor, trading them for a pair of khaki pants and a navy polo shirt he had worn the day before. He brushed the down under the bed with his foot and then headed to the bathroom to brush his teeth and check for new acne.
Jeff, one of the few employees at the B&B that wasn’t a child of Nancy Merkowski, greeted Paul as he trudged down the servant's staircase into the kitchen.
“Morning, Paul,” Jeff said as he rapidly whisked a metal bowl full of eggs.
“Hey, Jeff,” said Paul through a yawn. He opened a cupboard beneath the coffee maker and grabbed a foil bag of coffee grounds from the shelf. Paul removed the filler basket from the coffee maker and stuck a paper filter inside.
As he scooped tablespoon after tablespoon of coffee grounds into the filter his mother burst through the door in typical frantic fashion—eyes wide, head pivoting from side to side like a nervous chicken.
“Jeff, I want you to add scallions to the scrambled eggs from now on,” said his mother as she marched over to the pantry with determination.
“Yes, Miss Merkowski.”
“Hi, mom,” said Paul sarcastically.
“Morning, honey,” she said without looking at him. “As soon as that coffee is brewed bring it into the dining room and then start with the decaf. Some of the guests are already coming down.”
Paul shook his head mechanically. It was graduation weekend at the local community college, and every hotel, motel, and bed and breakfast within ten miles was packed with relatives in town for the ceremony, and Otterbee Manor (their mother thought that an English name would lend the B&B more gravitas) was no exception.
Suddenly Nancy shrieked.
Paul looked to the pantry. His mother held onto the lightbulb’s pull-string as if for support. Paul jumped off the stepstool and ran to his mother, ready to protect her from whatever menace lay inside the pantry.
Cans and boxes of food were strewn all over the floor. Bags of wheat and bread had been torn open and half eaten.
“Why don’t you tell me,” said his mother glaring at him.
“I didn’t do it,” said her son. He was shocked she would even accuse him.
“Are you sure it wasn’t that cat of yours?”
“Charlie? He’s been missing for almost a month now.”
“Yeah, well it looks like he’s back.” Nancy glanced back at the mess. She pursed her lips and shook her head. “I—I don’t have time for this. After you finish making the coffee, I want you to clean this up.”
“No buts. Just do it.”
Paul sighed loudly. “Fine.”
Toting the stainless steel coffee dispenser as if it were a cinder block, Paul shouldered his way through the swing door that led into the dining room. A man of about seventy years—a grandfather to a graduating student, guessed Paul—was sitting at the dining table reading yesterday’s copy of Daily Telegram. Rebecca was hunched in front of the twenty liter aquarium. She scanned the underwater landscape intently. With a grunt, Paul hoisted the coffee dispenser onto the end of the buffet table. Grandpa raised an eyebrow and then quickly went back to the paper.
“What did you do with the fish?” said Rebecca without looking at him.
“What are you talking about?” said Paul annoyed.
“The fish—they’re gone.”
Paul marched over to the aquarium eager to point out how moronic his sister was. He looked through the glass pane and was baffled to find that the fish—all twenty-four of them—were gone.
“What the heck?” He stepped around the side of the tank and looked behind the ceramic coral reef. None. “Where are they?”
“That’s what I asked you,” Rebecca said, her hands on her hips.
“Why is everything my fault?”
“Because it usually is.”
“What would I do with the stupid fish?”
The elderly gentleman eyed the siblings over his newspaper.
“You’re the one who adopted that fleabag.”
Paul’s brow crinkled. He sneered. “You think Charlie did this? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said before returning to the kitchen to brew the decaffeinated coffee, of which he was sure no more than one guest would drink.
As he reset the coffee maker he considered the evidence. Maybe it was Charlie, he thought. The cat had been missing for almost a month. Maybe he came home, starving, and was desperate for something to eat.
After Paul finished cleaning up the dining room he went looking for Charlie.
July 5, 2016
Paul was vacuuming the foyer when he heard a scream coming from the backyard. He dropped the vacuum and ran to the back porch to find his mother standing in front of the koi pond, her arms extended toward it as if she were trying to give it a hug. Paul charged down the steps to her side and grabbed her arm.
“Mom, what happened? Are you ok?”
“Look,” her voice cracked.
Paul looked into the pond. It looked like a depth charge had been detonated. The koi population had been obliterated. Heads and tails lay strewn about the flagstone perimeter. Guts and scales floated on the water’s surface.
“Oh my god,” said Paul. “What happened?”
“I—I don’t know.”
The porch’s screen door slammed against its frame. A middle-aged woman wearing jean shorts and a cat t-shirt had ventured into the backyard. She wanted to stroll through the professionally landscaper garden she had read about on the OtterbeeManor.com website.
Nancy’s eyes widened. “The guests can’t see this. Quick, honey, go get a bucket from the shed and pick up the fish parts while I stall Mrs. Goodwell.”
“Cordwell,” Paul corrected.
“Whatever!” she snapped.
Paul recoiled. His mother was not a yeller.
She pressed her eyes shut and smoothed back her gray-blond hair with her hands. “I’m sorry, honey. Just, please, do as mommy says.”
Paul dumped the bucket of fish parts into the metal garbage can while grumbling about his Fourth of July being spent in servitude to his mother. His mom had promised that she’d hire more staff to take over for her employee-children as soon as the B&B became lucrative, but that was over six months ago.
“You really did it this time.”
He looked up to see Rebecca’s head poking out her bedroom window, a schadenfreude smile on her face.
“What are you talking about?”
“I heard Charlie killed mom’s koi. You know she paid a fortune for those stupid fish.”
“Are you brain-damaged?” he said dryly. “You think a cat could eat a dozen of those monsters?”
“He ate mom’s goldfish, didn’t he?”
“No, he didn’t. I looked all over for him. He’s,” Paul hesitated, “gone.” He cocked his head and knitted his eyebrows. It had been almost a month since the goldfish went missing—and two months since Charlie vanished.
August 3, 2016
Paul heard his mother shriek from the backyard. He dropped the half-empty steam tray of blueberry pancakes onto the roller slide that fed their industrial dishwasher and ran out the back door. A few guests, startled by the scream, cautiously followed after him.
His mother was on her knees in front of what had once been a hedge sculpture of a ballerina in mid-arabesque. The expertly trimmed figure, for which his mother had paid a lot of money, was missing chunks out of her tutu, and her extended leg had been completely torn off.
Paul grabbed his mother’s arm. “What happened?”
His mother made chirping noises between short gasps for breath. She simply pointed to another sculpture.
The dolphin jumping from a plume of green water had also been mutilated. Large chunks of leaves and branches were missing from its tail, as if it were attacked by a hedge shark. Paul surveyed the rest of the yard only to discover that all four of his mother’s hedge sculptures had been vandalized to some degree.
Paul took his mother by the elbow and led her inside. He poured her a cup of decaf coffee (the only blend remaining from breakfast) while Rebecca reported the vandalism to the police over the phone. Nancy’s hand shook as she drank the coffee. The garden was a big attraction at Otterbee Manor. She had once held her son hostage while she proudly read the B&B’s reviews off Yelp.com. More than half had mentioned the manicured grounds as being one of the best parts of the guests’ stay.
The police didn’t arrive for over an hour—garden vandalism not only being a low priority, but also vaguely understood over the police radio. While his mother gave a statement to a young Officer, Paul headed into the backyard to assess the damage in person. Another cop was standing in the middle of the yard, taking pictures of the horticultural carnage with a large camera.
Paul ran his hand along the spine of a hedge deer that was sitting like a dog after having its back legs ripped off.
“Don’t touch anything until I’m done investigating the area, son,” said the policeman. His black hair was matted from his policeman’s hat, and his voice was just a bit too high and raspy for a man. Paul guessed that his tone must have been a side-effect of throat surgery or an injury.
“Yes, sir,” said Paul obediently. Eager to retreat from the cop’s view, he slunk away behind the koi-less koi pond.
In the far corner of the yard, the boy found one of their older guests crouched over a pile of hedge clippings. He rubbed his white beard as he studied the placement of the boxwood branches.
“This is where they put all the pieces?” said Paul.
The man, slightly startled, looked up at Paul. He lowered his wire rim glasses and studied the boy. “You’re the son of the woman who owns this place? Paul, if I heard correctly?”
Paul nodded as he studied the swirl of debris. It was almost four feet in diameter. “It looks like a circle.”
“It’s a circle alright. It is—a very specific circle at that. It appears to be a duck’s nest.”
Paul smiled wryly. “A duck?”
“Yes. Mallard’s tend to look for nesting spots in damp soil not far from a water source. ‘City slicker’ mallards,” he said making air quotes around the term, “will sometimes build a nest near an artificial body of water.” He nodded toward the koi pond.
“But this is huge.”
“Indeed,” said Horner with a cold stare.
Paul squinted and pursed his lips. “How do you know what duck nests look like anyway?”
The old man slowly stood up, cupping the small of his back as if trying to keep his lower vertebrate from popping out of his spinal column. He sighed and held out his hand. “Robert Horner, Professor of Ornithology at Plattsburgh College. Emeritus,” he added.
“I,” Paul paused, “don’t understand half of what you just said.”
“I’m a retired bird expert.”
“Ducks don’t get that big,” Paul said defiantly. “This is just someone playing a prank, like that crop circle up in Bermadine.”
“Then how do you explain the down interwoven with the branches and leaves?”
Paul looked closer. Small tufts of feathers padded the “nest”. He shrugged.
“Anything like this happen before?”
“Has anyone built any nests before? No.”
“I don’t just mean the nest.”
“Well,” he hesitated, “some other weird stuff has been going on.”
Paul looked down. He felt a little embarrassed, although he wasn't sure why. “Our goldfish disappeared a couple months ago, and then last month someone killed my mom’s koi fish.”
“How long ago did these things happen?”
He looked up. “The goldfish disappeared about a month ago, and then the koi a month after that, and then a month later this.” Paul smiled. “I guess the full moon really does make people go crazy.”
Horner smiled. “More than you know.”
Paul was beginning to worry that the old man was off his rocker. “Look, I have to go help my mom. The policeman said not to touch anything. Ok?”
“Of course. Here, before you go, take this.” Horner pulled a creased business card from his tweed coat and handed it to Paul.
Paul took the card despite thinking he would never need it.
“If something happens next month, give me a call.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said reluctantly. “See you later.” Paul jammed the card into his khaki pants as he hurried back to the house.
September 2, 2016
“What are you doing?” Rebecca stood on the back porch with her arms crossed, watching her brother fiddle with a camera atop a step ladder.
Paul grunted as he tightened the clamp of a security camera to the gingerbread trim that lined the roof’s gable. “Weird things have happened during the past few full moons, and I want to know what’s going on. I put some goldfish in the pond. If something goes for the fish, I’ll catch it on camera.”
“And what do you think you’re going to catch?”
“I don’t know. A werewolf?” he said, only half-joking.
“This is so stupid.”
“Look, if you don’t want to help me, or mom, can you at least help yourself? I don’t know if you’ve checked, but our Yelp rating has dropped to two stars. The old reviews rave about the garden. New guests feel lied to when they show up and it’s closed. I told mom to change our website, but she can’t afford to pay the guy to update it. What do you think happens to us if people stop coming here?”.
“Dad,” she said gravely.
“Yep.” He hopped off the stepstool. “So are you gonna help me, or what?”
“What do you need me to do?”
“I’m going to stand watch out here. You just watch the inside of the house.”
Paul sat on the porch swing looking out over the garden for the fourth straight hour in a row. The full moon bathed the remains of the hedges in a pale blue glow. Paul thought about the last time he and his father had played catch in that same backyard--back then it was just an empty yard. Paul had been practicing pitching before the start of baseball season. Each pitch was followed by the slap of the ball against his father’s worn out leather glove and an insult meant to encourage him.
“Is that all you’ve got?” his father sneered.
“You throw like a little girl.”
Paul gritted his teeth and threw harder.
“Don’t be such a sissy. Come on!”
He nearly threw his arm out on the next pitch.
“You’re not going to strike anyone out throwing like a girl who just got her first training bra!”
Paul’s frustration began to morph into sniffling.
“You’re crying?” His father shook his head and spit. “Jesus, you are a little girl. Maybe I should ask your coach to get you a pink uniform.”
The session had ended with Paul running into the house, a trail of belittling insults fading behind him.
Paul awoke the next morning in a fetal position on the porch swing. He sat up and smacked his lips. The morning sun was already three quarters over the horizon. It cast a mottled pattern on the garden through the pine trees towering in the neighbor’s yard. The garden looked just as it did the night before, although it didn’t look like much to begin with.
Paul stood up and headed toward the koi pond. As he walked along the gravel path, he noticed several large feathers sporadically dotting the crusher stone leading to the koi pond. Paul peered into the water. Almost all the goldfish he had dumped in the pond the day before were missing.
His stomach knotted and then untied when he remembered the security camera. Paul pulled out his smartphone and opened the app that linked to the camera. He paused the recording and queued up the video clip stored on the camera’s internal hard drive. With a touch of the play button the video began. Paul sat through ten minutes of empty backyard. He fast-forwarded hour after hour until suddenly a shape bolted in and out of the screen in a blur. Paul rewound the footage and then played back the video in real-time. The image was dark and hard to make out, but Paul thought he saw what looked like a large bird—the size of a small tractor—plunging its beak into the coy pond. Paul paused the video and ran inside.
“Becky! Said Paul excitedly as he burst into his sister’s room.
Startled from her sleep, Becky bolted upright exposing her budding breasts to her little brother. “What? What?” she said alarmed.
“Blech!” said Paul turning his head and covering his eyes with his hand as if he had just looked directly into the noon sun. “Put some clothes on!”
Becky’s eyes popped. She yanked the covers up to her chin. “Grow up, you ass.”
“I got him!” said Paul waving the cellphone at his sister. “It’s all here!”
Becky fell back onto the bed. “Come back in a few hours. I’m exhausted.”
Paul sat on the edge of the bed. “I can’t wait a few hours. Look at this!”
Becky groaned and rolled over.
Paul waited to see if she truly intended to ignore him at what was, to him, the finest moment of his life. “Fine. I’ll show you later,” he said and then left her to sleep.
“So what did you find?” said Becky yawning.
Paul was in the living room huddled against the arm of an antique chesterfield, his phone tethered to an electrical outlet. His eyes dilated when he looked up at his sister. He was on his twentieth viewing of the surveillance video.
Becky sat beside him. The ridges of cool leather soothed her back.
“Here,” he said, passing her the phone. “The lighting is pretty bad, but you can definitely see something.” Paul played the video back at four times the speed.
Becky watched as a large shape bobbed into view at the far end of the backyard. It moved toward the koi pond and spent—what Becky estimated based on the sped-up playback—anywhere from a half hour to an hour milling around in the edge. It then moved to the far corner of the yard and disappeared in the darkness.
“That’s where that nest-thing is,” Paul whispered, despite there being no audio to interupt.
After some time the thing made its way toward the porch, but it made a b-line to the side of the house. Paul paused the video just as the thing stepped within the edge of the porchlight. The siblings moved their head closer to the small display in an effort to make out the large, half-lit blur. The creature’s oblong torso, which was a little bigger than a riding lawn mower, balanced on two bony stilts that terminated in large triangular feet. A long curved neck like a shepherd’s crook held aloft a tall thin head with a smooth, wide proboscis.
“It looks like,” Becky squinted, “it looks like a—like a duck.”
Paul nodded knowingly.
October 29, 2016
Doctor Horner was pleased that Paul had contacted him. He had requested that the boy reserve him a room for the last weekend in October. Paul had offered to try to sneak him onto his mother’s electronic registrar, but Horner declined, happily offering to pay for his stay. Even so, Paul input the Groupon discount code to save him 20%.
The day of the Doctor’s arrival, Nancy had never seen her son work so quickly. She assumed he was trying to finish his chores in time for some Halloween mischief, but she was wrong. Paul was eager to tell the Doctor—to tell anyone who actually cared to listen—all that had happened. When Horner finally did arrive that afternoon, Paul wasted no time in getting down to business. The Doctor hadn’t even set his suitcase on his bed before Paul shoved his phone in front of him.
“Ok, ok,” said Horner with a modest smile. The boy’s overzealousness amused him. He looked at Rebecca. “Is he always like this?”
She leaned against the open door frame and rolled her eyes.
Horner sat on the bed and unbuttoned his tweed blazer. Paul hopped up beside him and held his phone above the Doctor’s lap. He played the video for him a couple times before pausing on the blurry image of the creature exiting the yard. The Doctor pulled a magnifying glass from a pocket inside his coat and positioned it over the still frame. He examined the image for what felt like an hour to Paul.
“Yes,” he droned, squinting at the image. “I think what we have here is an anatidaenthrope.”
“A what?” said Rebecca.
“A wereduck,” he clarified.
Paul’s jaw nearly fell off. “You mean like a werewolf?”
“Well the word were comes from an old English word meaning man. Werewolf literally means man-wolf. What we have here looks to be a man-duck.”
He looked at his sister, grinning widely. “I knew it!”
“Oh come on, Paul! You actually believe that garbage?”
“It’s not garbage,” said Paul. “Doctor Horner is a retired, um,” he hesitated, “doctor! He knows what he’s talking about.
“A werewolf would be stupid enough, but you two actually believe that there’s a man who has been turning into a duck every full moon and wrecking the house?”
“You saw the video, Beck!”
“The video is a blur! I can’t tell if that thing is a duck, a man, or a Volkswagen Beetle.”
Paul looked to the ceiling and slapped his hand against the side of his head.
“Actually,” Horner interjected, “I don’t believe that it is a man. Judging by the size of the creature, I’d guess that whoever is turning into a duck is someone smaller, younger— an adolescent say.”
Both Horner and Rebecca slowly turned their heads to Paul.
“What? You think it’s me?”
“Where were you the night this video was shot?”
“I was sitting on the back porch watching the yard, and then I guess I fell asleep.”
Horner pulled a pencil and notepad from his breast pocket. “Were-animals are notoriously mal-tempered. If the wereduck didn’t attack you while you slept it would have been a miracle. Have you been in contact with any waterfowl lately?”
Paul pulled on a strand of memory. “There’s a pond in the park down the street. We always feed the ducks when they return at Spring.”
Horner scrawled on his notepad. “And when you fed these ducks, was this before the strange occurrences started happening around the house?”
“Yeah. They’re so tame that they’ll eat right out of your,” his mouth slowly fell open, “hand.” Paul’s eyes widened. “No. I—I couldn’t be.”
“We’ll see. There’s a full moon tomorrow. I’d like to do a little experiment, Paul, if you don’t mind.
Paul shook his head.
“Is there anywhere we can lock you up? Preferably somewhere away from your mother.”
Paul squirmed uncomfortably.
The doctor held up his hand. “Just for a night. If you do transform I’d like to get a good look at what you become. This is a rare opportunity to study and photograph an anatidaenthrope up close.”
Becky was silently shaking her head, her brow furrowed.
Paul was reluctant . “Well, there is a shed in the backyard where mom locks up her garden equipment.”
“Does the shed have a window?”
Paul nodded. “A small one in the back. But I don’t want to be observed doc, I want to be cured.”
“And you will be. I’ll spend one night studying you, in the name of science, and the next day we’ll solve your anatidaenthropy problem.”
“And how will we do that?”
The Doctor turned to the suitcase he had placed on the bed. Paul took note as he entered the code, 636, that released the combination lock. When the doctor opened the suitcase Paul’s mouth fell open. Inside was a disassembled shotgun. Each piece fit snuggly inside foam depressions that corresponded to the size of the component it protected. The doctor unsnapped a lid on a small interior compartment and pulled out a shotgun shell.
“You see these?” said the doctor tapping the clear plastic shell casing with his finger.
Paul could see small metallic balls packed inside the cartridge.
“This is silver birdshot—the only thing that can kill a were-animal. The night after your transformation we will go down to that pond and blast every duck in sight.”
“No!” said Rebecca.
“I’m sorry dear, but it’s the only way to cure your brother. We have to kill the original carrier of the anatidaenthrope virus.
“But you can’t just go killing all the—!” Becky deflated. “Wait, what am I saying? This is idiotic. Paul won’t change into a wereduck—there are no wereducks!—and you won’t have any reason to shoot anything.”
“It’s possible you’re right, my dear. Maybe my theory is incorrect. We’ll know conclusively tomorrow once the full moon is high in the sky.”
The three stood in front of the shed at the far end of the garden ruins. Paul unlocked the padlock and opened the double doors. He then handed the key to Horner.
“If things get out of hand,” he said to Becky, “I want you to run.”
Rebecca smiled wryly. “Sure, Paul, if your transformation into a gigantic duck goes haywire, I will be sure to get myself to safety.”
Paul sneered. “Ha ha ha.”. He stepped into the garden shed and pulled the doors shut from the inside.
The Doctor handed his leather bag to Rebecca so he could lock the door. Then he reclaimed the bag back and retreated to the rear of the shed. Rebecca didn’t follow him at first, but then she breathed a sigh and joined him around back. The unlikely duo crowded around the window at the rear of the shed, which was no bigger than a base on a baseball diamond.
Paul waved from inside. “How long will it take, Doctor?” His voice was dampened by the Plexiglas window pane.
Horner pulled out a brass pocket watch chained to his vest. “We probably have another hour before the full moon is fully visible.”
“Great, a whole hour out here,” said Rebecca.
“Look, young lady, you don’t have to be out here if you don’t want to. I can handle this by myself.”
“No, no. I want to get the full picture so I can better hold this over my brother’s head in the future,” she said pointing at the window.
An hour passed before Horner spotted the edge of the moon peeking out from behind the pine trees in the neighbor’s yard.
“Ok, Paul. It’s show time.”
Paul perked up from inside the shed. He had been sitting on an upside down bucket waiting for this moment.
“When I give you the signal,” said the doctor as he pulled a handheld camcorder from his bag, “I want you to look directly at the moon.”
Paul stood and walked to the window, taking care not to look up until the Doctor had given him the signal. Whatever that is, he thought.
“Ok, now look at the moon!”
Paul tensed the muscles in his body and threw up a hard stare at the full moon. As the seconds passed, Paul’s gaze remained fixed on the pale glowing satellite, vaguely aware that the Doctor was filming his, undoubtedly disappointing, reaction. He exhaled and let his body relax.
“I’m sorry, Doctor Horner,” he said through the window. “I don’t think it’s working.” Just then something caught his eye—a tremulous movement at the edge of the window frame. Paul pressed his cheek to the glass to get a better look.
Rebecca was staring up at the moon. She stood on the tips of her toes, her body trembling, as if the moon’s gravity were trying to pull her off the earth.
Horner was still staring through his camcorder. “Just give it a few more minutes. There could be some kind of delay.”
“Professor!” said Paul. “My sister!”
Horner lowered the camera revealing a brow furrowed in frustration. He turned toward the girl. His eyes blossomed.
Small, brown quills were sprouting from Rebecca’s skin. Her jaw stretched outward, past her lips. The crotch of her jeans tore as her pelvis widened.
The professor gasped. He lifted the camera to his eye and continued filming.
Once the shafts grew past Rebecca’s skin the quills unfurled into brown, tan, and black feathers. Her pants fell away from her body, shredded by the boney, yellow stalks that had once been her legs. Gum tissue peeled off the elongated jaw revealing a stunted, yellow beak, and as the beak grew longer Rebecca’s teeth began to fall out one by one.
“Professor!” Said Paul. “Unlock the shed! We’ve got to get out of here!”
The professor looked at the shed and then back at Rebecca, whose torso was beginning to expand horizontally as her neck elongated.
“Right, right,” he said, coming to his senses. The Professor took the key out of his coat pocket and tried to insert it into the lock.
“Come on! Come on!”
“I’m trying. I’m trying.” Horner squinted at the key. The years had steadily robbed him of his vision, and the darkness only made it worse.
He looked over his shoulder. Rebecca, having almost entirely transformed, stepped toward him on her giant webbed feet. As she moved nuances of her anatomy continued to change: Tail feathers continued to grow. Her beak claimed a few more inches. Her breast continued to bulge.
Horner turned back to the lock. After one more failed attempt he slipped the key in the lock. He was about to give it a turn when a giant beak jabbed him in the shoulder knocking him to the ground. The professor rolled onto his back and looked up at the humongous duck as it lifted its head to the night sky and let out a long, “Quack!”
Horner scrambled across the grass.
“Run, Professor!” Paul shouted through the crack in the shed doors.
Pain throbbed in his shoulder and side. Something’s broken, thought Horner. He labored to his feet. The duck looked to the shed and then back at Horner as he hobbled toward the house, his hand bracing his limp arm. The duck followed, its head bobbing with every step.
Paul spotted the key through the crack in the door. It lay glinting in the grass just out of reach. He pushed his weight against the doors, but they only gave enough to allow his fingers to slip through the seam.
As he looked around the shed for a tool to pry the lock open his gaze fell on the window. It was small—too small to climb through he had first thought, but desperation made him hope that he was mistaken.
Paul picked up a rake and jabbed the handle into the Plexiglas. It didn’t budge at first, but after a few more jabs the glass popped out of the frame and fell to the ground. Paul dropped the rake. He put his hands on the window frame and pulled himself through. But his shoulders were too broad and for a moment he was stuck, wedged in the frame. Panic set in and Paul began writhing like a fish clasped in a child’s hands. His frantic jerking pivoted his right shoulders just enough to free his upper body from the bear trap.
Paul pulled his lower body through the window. He fell to the ground and landed in a heap as if the shed had birthed him. He stood up and rubbed his shoulder. The sleeve of his shirt was torn and stained with a small spot of blood, but other than that he was uninjured.
As he came around the corner of the shed, he spotted Rebecca standing at the bottom of the porch. She set one foot on the stairs and then the other, but she slipped and fell onto her breast. For a moment it looked as though she were roosting on the stairs. She straightened her bony legs and stepped back onto the ground. Paul watched in awe as the duck flapped her massive wings and propelled herself onto the porch. Rebecca plunged her beak through the door’s screen and threw her head back, flinging the door open. Paul heard a crack as Rebecca forced the inner door latch open with the weight of her body.
Horner limped down the hallway. He turned around just in time to see Rebecca crash through the backdoor. When Rebecca saw him, she quacked and headed in his direction. The doctor back-stepped a few paces before falling onto the carpet. He gritted his teeth at the burst of pain in his shoulder. As the duck came closer, the Doctor picked himself off the floor. He grabbed a decorative vase standing on an accent table and lobbed it at the duck. Rebecca caught the vase in her bill. The container survived for a second before the wereduck bit down on the vase, destroying it in an explosion of glass shards. Horner covered his eyes as splinters of glass grazed his face.
He limped toward the front door of the house. The duck remained in close pursuit. Horner was fumbling with the doorknob when he remembered: the gun. He looked back at the staircase. It was too late now. The duck had already moved past the stairs and was only a moment away from doing to his brittle bones what it had done to the vase. Horner threw open the front door and scampered down the stairs. He swung the door shut, but the duck poked its head through the frame, preventing it from latching shut. It squawked in pain as the door slammed against its head.
Paul ran through the house. He peeked his head out the front door. Across the street the wereduck was thrusting its beak against the window of what he assumed was Horner’s car, with the Doctor locked inside.
Paul gasped. The gun, he thought. He ran upstairs to the doctor’s room. Inside he found the suitcase sitting on the faux Queen Anne dresser next to the Professor’s car keys. He grabbed the case, left the room, and launched himself down the staircase.
Outside Rebecca continued to peck at the car window with her enormous, woody beak. A spider web had formed across the glass.
“Rebecca!” said Paul waving the case overhead. “Come get me, you skank!”
Rebecca’s head pivoted sharply. Her beady brown-black eye focused on Paul, the powerful retinal muscles making it seem as if he were standing right in front of her. She marched in place, turning toward him.
For a moment neither moved. They only stared at one another.
Paul wondered if there were the slightest flicker of sibling recognition in her avian brain, or if she were all duck now and the only thing she saw was a threat or food.
Rebecca quacked and Paul bolted as if her call were the crack of a starter pistol. His sister gave chase, but, although she may have been a match for a 70 year-old man, her awkward, birdy gate was no match for the speed of a young boy experiencing his first dose of adrenaline. After sprinting half a block, Paul looked over his shoulder to see where his sister was. But the street was empty aside from Horner straining to exit his brown Audi C4.
“She’s gone?” called Paul.
The Doctor pointed at streetlight over the boy’s head. Paul looked up just in time to see a massive silhouette diving straight toward him. Paul fell to the pavement as the wereduck swooped over him. She was so close that he could feel the rush of air displaced by the bird’s massive wings. Rebecca glided down the street before pumping her wings and disappearing into the night sky.
Paul sprang to his feet. “The park!” He held the tweed case over his head for the professor to see, and then darted down the street.
The professor, his side aching and head bleeding, let out a sigh that may as well have said you asked for this, Doc and then slowly limped after his young companion.
Just as Paul reached Sherman Park, the wereduck dive bombed him again. Her wing clipped his shoulder sending him spinning onto the grass. The case flew from his hand.
Paul stood, dazed and disoriented. He looked for the case, and, after a moment, spotted it butted against the base of a public barbeque grill. As he bent down to pick it up a giant beak latched onto the end of it. Keeping a firm grasp on the handle, Paul looked up and came face to face with his transmogrified sister. Her massive duck form was almost enough to send Paul running for his life, but instead he stared his sister in the eye and yanked the case out of her beak. Rebecca quacked and went to peck her brother, but Paul swung the case as hard as he could, batting his sister upside the head. The duck cried out in pain and backed away. Her wings beat, making a noise that sounded like a helicopter in slow motion, and she retreated to the air.
Paul turned and ran for the pond. He knew his sister wouldn’t stay away. Kneeling in front of a park bench, Paul set the case on the planks and entered the lock’s combination. He slid the triggers apart and the latches popped open with a buzz. Paul felt a pang of excitement as he lifted the lid revealing the disassembled gun inside.
He pulled the barrel from its mold and then the stock. He then set the stock down and picked up the receiver. Paul inserted the barrel into the body of the gun, but there was no sign of interlocking. A large ring fused to the barrel didn’t seem to connect to anything. He pulled another ring from the case and tried to find its place without any luck. It quickly occurred to him that, without the professor, it would take him hours to figure out how to put the shotgun together.
He heard a large splash like a water-skier sinking into a lake. Small waves lapped the pond’s shore. Suddenly the other ducks—the normal ducks—in the pond began skimming around the pond in a frenzy of honking and flapping wings.
Paul rubbed his mouth. He took the silver birdshot shells from the case and slipped them into his jeans pocket. Paul noticed a garbage can near the barbeque grill. The boy kicked it, knocking it over and spilling trash onto the lawn. Squatting down, Paul sifted through the trash. After a brief moment he found a hotdog bun bag with two buns remaining inside. He grabbed the buns along with an empty wine bottle and ran back to the pond.
Standing at the edge of the pond, Paul called to the fowl. “Here ducks!” he said trying not to be too loud. “Here ducks!”
Paul picked pieces off the hotdog bun and threw them into the water. One by one the ducks appeared, hungry for a midnight snack. They quickly gobbled up the bread. Although the bread was gone, the mallards remained near the boy, looking at him expectantly. Paul tore off more bread and tossed the pieces into the water.
A glowing eye appeared a few yards away. His sister was paddling toward him. Paul took the wine bottle and hurled it at her. The bottle struck Rebecca in the breast. She quacked and then took to the air. Paul knew he could expect another aerial attack in a moment. He took one of the cartridges out of his pocket. Paul broke the brass cap off the end of the shell and poured the small silver beads into his palm. They glittered in the moonlight.
Paul tore off a piece of bread. He pushed a silver bead into the morsel, wadded the bread around it, and then tossed it into the water. One of the ducks gobbled it up without a moment’s hesitation. Paul smiled. He repeated the process again and again and as he did more ducks swam in for a bite.
Just as he was about the toss another breaded BB into the water the sound of splitting air came from overhead. Paul fell to the ground just as Rebecca soared over above him, catching the back of his head with her webbed foot.
Paul cried out in pain.
She flapped her wings and set down on the grass. As Rebecca loped toward her brother Paul continued to throw the spiked bread in the water. Rebecca reared her head to attack when the shotgun barrel hit her in the head. The wereduck craned its neck and saw Doctor Horner throwing pieces of his shotgun at her.
“Run, boy!” said Horner.
Rebecca flinched each time Horner hit her with a piece of his Remington. When he ran out of parts the wereduck shot out her wing, knocking him to the ground. Rebecca set a webbed foot on Horner’s chest. She was about to crush the Doctor’s head with her heavy beak when a loud succession of quacks drew the attention of both humans and wereduck alike.
In the pond a large mallard was violently beating its wings and wrenching its green head from side to side. Pond water splashed the surrounding ducks and they quickly paddled clear of their spasmodic brother. The drake, in its frenzy of movement, flailed onto the shore. Paul backed away as the duck took a few steps towards him, its body trembling as it labored to move. The duck glared at Paul, and that was when he realized what was going on. It’s the original anatidaenthrope carrier, he thought. It had eaten the laced bread, and now the silver was wreaking havoc on its internal organs.
The duck’s chest heaved in and out like the bladder in a blood pressure cuff. Its eyes bulged and then popped out of their sockets like corks in tiny champagne bottles. With another step one of the mallard’s legs detached from its body sending it falling onto its side. Its feathers rapidly molted and its bare flesh began to blister as if it were being cooked from the inside. The duck tried to quack in pain, but blood foamed from its mouth muffling its call. Then its beak fell off its face, splitting as it landed on the ground.
Paul watched, slack-jawed, as the duck dissolved into a pile of putrefied flesh and wilted feathers. Rebecca! He remembered. Paul turned to his sister. She had stepped off Horner’s chest and was going through her own metamorphosis. Rebecca’s body was shrinking. Her wings fitfully retracted, as if she were a stop-motion model. Feathers flung from her skin like beads of water shaken off a dog’s body. Paul would later recall to Horner that he wasn’t afraid that what had happened to the carrier duck was happening to his sister because the carrier duck’s unraveling was more violent and angry. The duck had looked Paul in the eye as if it knew exactly what was happening to it and who was responsible. In contrast, Rebecca’s transformation looked relieving, as if whatever power that had contorted her body and her undertakings were being exorcised.
When Rebecca had almost completely reverted to her human form she fell to her knees. Paul ran to his sister. He removed his button down shirt and placed it over Rebecca’s heaving shoulders.
“It’s ok, Becky. We got him.”
“Got who?” she looked at him half-bewildered, half frightened.
“It was you, dear,” said Horner gently. “You were the wereduck.”
“Come on,” Paul said slowly helping her to her feet. “We’ll tell you about it later.”
As they slowly walked back to Otterbee Manor, Paul was struck by a thought. “I hate to tell you this, Beck, but I think you ate my cat.”
Rebecca winced and shuddered as if she were about to throw up.
November 29, 2016
The next full moon came and went without incident. An inspection of the grounds revealed that his mother’s garden, although still under repair, suffered no more aquatic or faunal catastrophes, just as Paul expected. Rebecca slept soundly and even the normal ducks had mostly taken flight from oncoming winter. Paul had even kept his camera running on the back porch. When he finally reviewed the recording he saw nothing extraordinary in the footage.
But perhaps if Paul had looked harder he might have noticed something in the corner of the frame. Maybe if Horner had been there to review the video through his magnifying glass, he may have been able to spot the gyrations in the disused nest. But he wasn’t there, and Paul was no longer on guard, and so no one saw the large egg shaking free of the leaves that had kept it hidden. No one noticed the pulsing crack in the top of its shell. And no one heard a triumphant high-pitched quack as a duckbill passed through the wall of its embryonic cage to taste the cool air of a late November evening. And no one noticed the duckling, which was much larger than a normal duckling, slip out of the yard and into the moonlit night.