“You know if we stare up at the sky too long we’ll float away, right?”
“Shut up, Ryan.”
“No, really. My Uncle John told me that. He said if you lay on your back and look up at the sky — but it has to be a really clear blue sky with, like, hardly any clouds — he said that after a little while you’ll float off to heaven.”
Marcus was quiet. He didn’t want to float off to heaven. Not yet. “What if we close our eyes?” he said. “Does that reset it?”
“I don’t know,” said Ryan. “But let’s keep looking a little longer. If I start to float away, will you grab me?”
“Yeah,” said Marcus without hesitation.
“Okay good. I’ll do the same for you.”
Marcus knew his best friend would do the same for him, but it still felt good to hear it. It was good to be reminded of things.
They were lying on their backs in crispy grass. The grass wanted to be green, but in the mid-afternoon heat of an Indianapolis summer, it was a light brown. It struggled under the blistering sun, but the next thunderstorm would come along and the grass would heal. That’s just how things worked.
“Where do you want to live when you grow up?” Ryan asked.
Marcus glanced over at his friend, whose arms were behind his head. He looked relaxed, even though he was squinting at the vast blanket of blue over their heads. “I don’t know, maybe at the top of a skyscraper in Chicago?” Marcus had driven to Chicago last April to watch one of his brother’s basketball tournaments. The buildings there were like random Minecraft obelisks, tall and blocky and seemingly out of nowhere.
“I want to live on one of the moons of Jupiter. Maybe Io.”
“I didn’t know that was an option,” said Marcus. “In that case, I want to live on a spaceship the size of the sun. And it’ll be going at lightspeed most of the time to get to all these places all over the universe. We’ll meet aliens and see all these other worlds and what they’re like compared to Earth.”
“That sounds cool,” said Ryan. “Maybe I’ll do that too.”
“On the same ship?” asked Marcus.
Just as Marcus was about to sit up, to avoid floating away to heaven, something streaked across his vision.
“A UFO!” he shouted before even thinking.
“I saw it too,” said Ryan, sitting up.
Without needing to speak, the boys got to their feet and followed the path of the flying object. They were led to the woods and the paper-thin creek that ran behind Ryan’s yard. All Marcus noticed at first was the soft dribble of the creek. But a rustling in the reeds nearby drew the boys’ attention.
“What’s that?” Ryan asked.
“Is it an alien?” said Marcus. Something orange and green was just barely poking out of the reeds.
Ryan was right. A duck waddled from the reeds into full view. Its head was as green and shiny as a Christmas ornament, its feet orange as life vests. It only took a second for Marcus to understand something was wrong.
noticed it too. “Whoa. Look at its leg.”
“Yeah,” said Marcus automatically. The duck was limping. Its left foot hung uselessly every time it stepped, like a glob of spaghetti noodles hanging from a fork.
“Maybe it’ll let us pick it up,” said Ryan. “I’ve never touched a duck before.”
Something didn’t feel right to Marcus. “Wait!” he said as Ryan moved toward the duck.
“Don’t pick it up.”
“I just don’t think we’re supposed to, okay,” said Marcus. He didn’t know why he was feeling on edge, but he was. It wasn’t like the duck was all that dangerous. If anything, it looked like it wanted to be picked up.
“Whatever,” said Ryan. “This is dumb. It’s not a flying saucer. You want to go to the pool?”
“Maybe we should go get it some bread,” said Marcus. He didn’t want to go to the pool. Not after seeing the duck.
“Come on, Marc. It’s not like we can really do anything.”
He knew Ryan was right, but there was something about watching the duck try to walk around that pushed everything else from his mind. “Just gimme a minute.”
Ryan groaned. “If you don’t wanna swim, we can go back to my basement and get on the server.”
Marcus knew they could get on the Minecraft server and game the rest of the day and it would probably be a lot of fun. But he didn’t respond. Instead, he sat down criss-cross applesauce and studied the duck. It hobbled in a figure-eight; it didn’t quack so much as mutter — if ducks could mutter — kind of like it was talking to itself or wanted help but was too weak to ask. Marcus could tell it wanted to sit down and rest, but couldn’t figure out how. Its leg must have hurt pretty bad.
“It’s going to die,” said Marcus. The truth clawed at him like the feeling of vomiting sometimes clawed at the back of his throat.
“Yeah, eventually. Do you really want to stay and watch?”
Marcus didn’t answer right away, which was enough of an answer. “Do you think it has a family?” he finally asked.
“I don’t know,” said Ryan. “Do ducks have families?”
“Haven’t you seen momma ducks with their ducklings?”
“Well, maybe it’s a daddy duck or an uncle.”
“Does that change anything?” asked Marcus. “It’s still in pain.”
“Yeah, but it’s a duck. Come on, Marc. Let’s go.”
“You go,” said Marcus. He understood his friend’s impatience but didn’t feel the same. “I’ll meet you in the basement.”
“Are you sure?” Ryan was confused. He couldn’t understand why Marcus would want to stay.
Marcus only nodded. He was transfixed on the duck, which kept limping in spirograph circles, occasionally trying to lie down, always unsuccessfully.
He knew he was right: it was going to die, but maybe not for a while.
Marcus wanted to pick it up, carry it in his arms back to his house and ask his mom to drive them to a vet. Maybe he could still help it. But, no. It wasn’t his place. His mom would just tell him to go put it back outside and wash his hands. Another minute went by and now the duck limped to the berm above the creek. It was half frozen there, bobbling like a scaredy-cat on the high dive. It seemed like all the duck wanted was to be in the water.
Marcus wanted to cheer the duck on, say everything would be alright. But there was nothing to really say. The duck didn’t jump down into the creek. Instead, it turned around. It shuffled out from beneath the canopy of beeches into the sunburned grass of Ryan’s yard.
He followed it cautiously. There was no one else around. No one mowing their yards, no neighbor kids shouting or laughing nearby, and Ryan had gone inside. It was like the whole world was holding a moment of silence. Marcus laid back in the grass. He watched the duck at first, but before long it got too hard. Instead, he stared at the ocean of sky above him. He wished the duck was dead already, or that he’d never seen it in the first place. But now he knew.
He thought staring at the sky might take his mind off the duck. And for a moment it did; for a moment he felt light. Was the grass even there? But the deep blue above him became misty waves. Tears blurred his vision. The duck stumbled slowly about the yard and Marcus felt so heavy he knew his imprint would never leave that spot.
Mitch is a high school teacher who has two simple requests: he’d like Arsenal to win the league and just a bit more time each day to write. He lives with his wife and sleepy cat in Los Angeles.