Michael O’Hare was eight years old the day he abandoned his bicycle in the woods.
As the sun rose that morning, he’d crept down the aging wooden steps of the farmhouse, praying that the creaking under his sneaker wouldn’t betray his exit to Pa.
Pa had warned that he’d get another whoopin’ if he didn’t muck out that horse stall before the daylight warmed the cupola on the barn’s roof. Whatever that meant.
Exhaling the deep breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, he pedaled off, wind in his hair, gravel kicking up beneath his wheels until all that was left of Michael was a cloud of dust.
Michael whistled as he pushed his legs forward. Since Ma died, Pa had become grumpy, consumed with shouldn’ts, mustn’ts and decrees of No every time Michael wanted to do something fun. There was more to life than working a farm, Michael thought. Besides, the horses wouldn’t mind if Michael was late. He had something more important to do.
Earlier that week, Michael had stumbled on a nest of duck eggs in the woods. Pushing his bicycle gently over the brush, Michael had peeked through the leaves and watched as a mother duck settled down, feathers ruffling over her eggs to warm and protect the little lives growing within their shells.
He scrunched his face up. When he thought hard enough, he could remember how it felt to snuggle next to Ma on a cold night, his body nestled beneath her arm, snug as a bunny in a burrow. He could almost still hear the muffled thrumming of her heart on his cheek as he rested against her bosom when she rocked him to sleep.
His eyes watered. He wriggled his nose, as if fighting a sneeze.
Ma smelled like apple pie and sugar cookies, he remembered, and the house was so much warmer with her in it. He missed the days when he’d see her standing on the porch, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun as she waited for him to come home from school. She’d take his jacket and backpack and ruffle his hair before he stomped into the kitchen where a glass of cold milk and a plate of snickerdoodles always waited on the crisp tablecloth.
Michael remembered a lot.
But he wished he could remember the one thing he was starting to forget. His Ma’s face.
The forest floor crackled beneath his wheels as he pedaled, announcing his arrival to the woodland creatures. Squirrels scampered past him and rabbits stared, immobile, as he passed; as if their lack of movement would render them invisible.
Michael wasn’t interest in the squirrels or the rabbits. He wanted to see if the ducklings had hatched.
Laying his bicycle on the overgrown grass, Michael crept to the side of the creek where he’d last seen the nest. He walked on tiptoe so he wouldn’t startle the mother. All he needed was an angry, squawking mama duck storming at him; he had enough grumbling from Pa. Besides, Pa had always said that happy children were born from happy mamas, whatever that meant. Michael wasn’t sure if his Ma had been happy. He wasn’t sure if he was happy either. He just knew that at this moment, the only thing that mattered was those eggs.
The nest was empty, save for a few errant feathers and shards of eggshell stuck in a mess of sticks and grass.
Where could they be?
Perhaps they had swum away, their small webbed feet pedaling over slick rocks and through cool waters, seeking adventure away from their home.
Just as he did.
Michael stripped off his socks and shoes, abandoning them next to his bicycle. He pulled up his pantlegs and sloshed through the water, mossy green stones cold and slippery beneath his feet. He hopped from rock to rock, making a quacking sound and flapping his arms as he marched down the stream bed. He hoped that the mama duck would hear his calls, welcome him in to her family. He pictured the baby ducks surrounding him, tickling his legs with each poke of their tiny beaks. He imagined petting their newborn feathers, soft, like his mother’s hair, in those days when he was little and she lay at his bedside, how he’d entwined his fingers into her silken blond locks each night as he drifted to sleep.
Michael stopped, his toes clenching the rocks beneath him. Moisture slicked his cheeks, and he couldn’t tell whether it had come from the water splashing around him, the mist that hovered through the trees, or his own tears.
The Mama Duck lay still, its lifeless body burrowed in to the muddy bank of the creek.
There was that tickle in his nose again.
He approached slowly, with the same hesitancy with which he’d approached his mother’s coffin. Though the air had been perfumed with the sickly-sweet flowers surrounding her, Michael still smelled the cinnamon on his Ma’s skin. He’d tiptoed as close as he could without disturbing her, and as he leaned over the shiny wooden box where she rested, he thought he saw her chest rise and fall, as if she were just dreaming.
Pa told him he was a foolish boy.
Michael reached out and stroked the duck’s feathers, a silken shroud beneath his palm. And as he turned to go, he sensed movement near the duck’s feet. He lifted the body of the fallen mother; beneath her sat a hatchling, its eyes wide. It opened its mouth with a squawk and waddled toward Michael. He lifted the baby duck in his hands and cradled it to his cheek.
“Guess we’re in this together, little guy.”
Cupping the duck in his hands, Michael marched down the stream and into the morning light that trickled through the forest leaves. His bicycle forgotten, Michael set out on an adventure with a new friend.
One who understood him more than anyone else in the world.
About the Author
Lisa Fox is a pharmaceutical market research consultant by day and fiction writer by night. Her short fiction has appeared in publications including The Satirist, Theme of Absence, Credo Espoir, Unlikely Stories Mark V, Ellipsis Zine, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, as well as various anthologies. She recently won first place in the NYC Midnight 2018 Short Screenplay contest and placed third out of over 3000 writers in NYC Midnight’s 2018 Flash Fiction Challenge. Lisa resides in northern New Jersey with her husband, two sons, and their oversized dog, and relishes the chaos of everyday suburban life.
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