The Celebration of Johnny’s Yellow Rubber Ducky, Part 5

 

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Ricky

 

My name is Ricky, and my story regarding the duck began with a tragedy. I was at the hospital a few weeks ago suffering from some serious indigestion when I found the duck sitting on the nightstand beside my bed. I was rolling in pain from what I thought was food poisoning, but turned out to be a bad case of gas. For several hours, I waited for the doctor to give me his diagnosis, but to no avail. Things kept coming up, my needs kept getting pushed to the backburner, my stomach continued to rumble and my answers continued to elude me.

When the doctor finally showed up at five o’clock, he stepped three feet into the room, shouted something at me in French and then walked off. I didn’t know what he said, but an English-translating nurse told me he was upset that I wasted his time. Not really understanding how I wasted his time, I apologised to the nurse. She involuntarily shrugged her shoulders; then she discharged me from the hospital an hour later—with my stomach still aggravating me.

Speaking of French people, I noticed that none of them wanted this duck. I guess the duck caters only to those who can read the flash drive attached.

Anyway, when I was released, I decided to take the duck with me, because the letters suggested it would’ve been a good idea. And, because I never questioned what a note told me to do, it just made sense to me to not question this one, either. Besides, it was a rubber duck. There wasn’t any reason for me not to take it.

So I went back to my flat that night—I was renting a place in the south side of town for school—and meditated on my dilemma. My stomach was in pain, but I decided to sleep it off. Several days later, however, I finally felt some relief. After making a valiant decision to stop eating ice cream with clams, my mysterious illness vanished. My body felt lighter than air, so much that I jumped for joy, landed on my bed the wrong way, and bounced out the second floor window. I ended up back in the hospital where my French doctor merely looked at me with disdain and shouted some word that sounded insulting.

I didn’t have the duck with me when I went to the hospital the second time, but I recovered it when I returned home a few days later. From there I took my duck to school—I was studying the culinary arts—and told all my classmates about the journey it had embarked on. Most of them thought it was cool, but some of them thought it was weird. None of them understood why I had it. After I told them about my visits to the hospital, however, they all agreed it made sense.

And that’s the way it was for two months. I went to class, brought my duck and learned how to cook meals without making myself sick. The course began teaching us how to make a chef’s salad, but steadily moved us into learning the realms of steak, squash, and other elements of fine dining. Although it took me some time to really grasp the concept of how to make a delicious and artistic meal, the whole thing finally clicked when I managed to turn grape jelly into a masterpiece—I spread it onto a T-bone. At that point, I was ready to test my skills as a chef.

I know that’s a long story, but that’s how I got to the café where I’m sitting now. I came here with the intention of showing the head chef my signature “Grape Crepe Su-Steak” to promote my name to the industry. I found out just a few minutes ago, however, that he wants to buy my recipe for his restaurant. As of this afternoon I am now three hundred Eurodollars richer than I was this morning, and the feeling is beautiful. And thanks to this happy ending, I can now leave the duck here in my chair and go on about my day. I hope the next person who finds it is as lucky as I am.

 

The Present

 

Johnny winced at the memory of the Grape Crepe Su-Steak, but he kept reading Ricky’s account anyway, hoping he didn’t accidentally stumble upon any of his other “masterpieces,” like Ice Cream a la Clams, for instance. Granted, he didn’t hate the dish. But he certainly didn’t love it. His only real regret was ordering it more than once. The first time reminded him of Claire, and as long as she was still out there waiting to be found, he would keep that memory of the grape jelly-covered T-bone sacred, even if it pained every ounce of him to do so. It was actually pretty poor. Having Claire sitting across from him was the ingredient that kept it from being dreadful. The other times he had eaten it, he didn’t have that special ingredient, and the dish was much worse for it.

Once he got to the end of Ricky’s account, he wanted to forget about that bloody piece of steak and get on with life in the present. He just hoped he would never cross paths with Ricky or his food again. The thought of having “Marmalade Spaghetti” or something equivalent on a server’s bad advice depressed him a little.

The problem with eating out was that someone else generally picked his meals for him, and they almost always picked whatever was special that day. He didn’t usually pick a favorite to return to until it had given him a fond memory. The Grape Crepe Su-Steak had certainly complicated things for him a bit.

At any rate, he thought it was better just to keep reading.

 

Megan

 

Hey, I’m Megan, and I found this duck when I thought I was dying. There’s a train against a brick wall for you, right? I suppose that deserves clarification. I didn’t feel some abnormal pain and assume the worst—I’m no hypochondriac. Rather, my body did something it had never done before, and it scared the heck out of me. For a solid week, my nose bled. Not continuously like a hemophiliac, but intermittently like a cancer patient, every morning when I woke up. The first time it happened, I cleaned myself up. The second time it happened, I thought it was strange. On the third time, I thought I had a problem. On the fourth time, I resolved to see a specialist. The day that I found the duck—on a park bench between two trees—I had reached my seventh day without change. The doctor put me on the list for the following week and I was scared. My life had finally shown signs of promise—just two weeks earlier, after much hardship, I moved to France—and now this cancer threatened my future. I didn’t know what else to do.

The next few days passed with the same waking routine. Sunshine flooded into my room, my eyes opened to reality, and my cheek was stained with liquid red. After wiping my face with a towel, I felt around my sinus cavities for lumps. Each day, I couldn’t find any. None of it made sense. Then, finally, the day came for me to see the doctor. First he took my blood, then he had me urinate in a cup, and finally he checked my blood pressure. When all that was over, he interviewed me for symptoms. Then, he felt my cheeks. He couldn’t find anything, either.

Another week passed without news. My nose continued to bleed, but the doctor remained silent. I was about to lose my mind when his secretary finally called me back to the office. After much anticipation, I would finally know the truth. Only, as I listened to his diagnosis, I was shocked. He sidestepped my main concern. It wasn’t the nosebleeds that bothered him. It was my blood pressure.

It didn’t make sense. My nosebleeds had nothing to do with my blood pressure, yet my blood pressure was the main concern. Cancer was obvious, but it wasn’t the important thing. I didn’t know what to do. I consulted the rubber duck for some peace of mind, but it couldn’t talk—it could only squeak. I wanted to run home and cry.

The following week, I admitted myself into the hospital per the physician’s instruction. From there, he conducted a series of tests ranging from cholesterol count to hypoglycemia scans. He also tested my bloodstream for cancer, but only to humor me. He didn’t think the nosebleeds were attributed to that. I thought he was crazy, but I didn’t have the option to argue with him; I just had to accept his opinion.

Finally, after a full day’s worth of waiting, he told me I could go home. It turned out my bloodstream was fine. As for the possibility of cancer, there was nothing to support it. When I asked him about the nosebleeds, he asked me if I ever bothered to check my nostrils. When I told him no, he told me that I should. Apparently, my nose was scratched on the inside. It had nothing to do with cancer. It had everything to do with someone picking my nose while I slept.

So that’s where I am now—getting ready to leave the hospital—relieved that I’m not dying. Because this was the greatest news I received all year, I figured this was the best place to pass the duck off to someone else. Of course, when I leave the hospital, I’ll have to find a new place to live, because the thought of going home to a roommate who picks my nose while I sleep just flat out gives me the creeps.

I think I’ll just go to London and start speaking in a British accent. I have a friend near Regent Street in the West End I can stay with for a bit. She’s always looking for someone to go shopping with, and she respects other people’s privacy.

 

The Present

 

Johnny racked his brain for a memory of Megan, but he couldn’t think of any. She seemed interesting enough, certainly knowledgeable of biology, it seemed, except for the part where she thought she had cancer. But no one in his travels sparked a memory for him. Perhaps, he thought, he had found the end of his prior connection to the rubber ducky. But he wasn’t sure. He still had one more story to read, and it didn’t feel like fate was quite yet done with him.

He also wasn’t sure if he was ready to reach the end. The first storyteller, Will, had been right about one thing in particular: Most of these people had fairly dull experiences in hindsight. Tales of romance, tales of sickness, all things that made him want to vomit. To them, the stories had meant something, of course. But to Johnny, they were nothing but painful reminders of his own failed decisions—most of what they had experienced, he had missed by an inch.

But he knew he had to read on, read the final story, or, because these were listed in reverse chronological order, the first story. He just wasn’t sure if he had the stomach for it.

He gulped, blinked hard, and started to read it anyway. He crossed his fingers in the hope that he wasn’t about to have his world rocked.

 

Matthew

 

Okay, this is an exciting day for me. After four years of carrying around this rubber duck, I finally get to put this plan into action. First off, my name is Matthew, and I am sending this duck on a mission to change the lives of seven individuals, including myself. Or rather, I am sending this duck to experience the life-altering moments of seven people. Since I am the first, six more shall have the pleasure of taking this duck wherever they go. Then, when the seventh body has his amazing moment, he or she will publish the entire story for everyone to see, and ultimately keep the duck. At least, that’s the hope I have. I suppose some may find the duck and choose to do nothing with it. But for those people, I hope they will leave it where they’ve found it. I hope the duck’s journey will be accurately recorded and leave behind no gaps in adventure. I will also attach a README text file to clarify the instructions in case anyone who reads this still doesn’t know what to do.

Regarding the means for chronicling the journey, I had thought strongly about attaching a series of postcards or notes to its neck to keep the recordings spontaneous yet brief. But then I realised how quickly paper or cardstock could be damaged by elements, or worse, how quickly one page could fill up, shortchanging the climax of each person’s experience. So, I bought a cheap flash drive and attached that instead. I hope this won’t prove to be a waste of money. Crossing my fingers that this is a good idea. But then, when I think of my good fortune, I have no reason to believe it to be an awful idea.

I suppose I cannot commission this duck on this grand journey without first explaining how I came to find it. The day after my father vanished, I walked down a beach near Calais to gather my senses. The previous night had been wrought with horrible thoughts of foul play and I lost sleep. The morning after, I was so groggy that I couldn’t think straight. I sauntered down the avenues to see if I could find him, to see if maybe he was just resting in some alley with a wine-stained shirt on his back. But the search turned up void. With the police on the trail, I decided I had to get out of town for a while. So I headed up for the coast. When I got there, I found this duck washing ashore.

I was surprised at first to discover such an odd trinket rolling up from the Channel. I figured initially that some kid had dropped it and the water had pulled it out of reach. I scanned the coastline for any child that might’ve been missing it. But it wasn’t to be. All I saw were random vagrants lying in the sand. No one seemed to be missing anything more than simple dignity. So I thought harder. I wondered if anyone would miss it.

I considered the possibility that it had a long journey getting here, maybe years given the dulled state of its rubber texture, so I decided to rescue it from taking another trip through the straits. It’s possible that it had washed ashore elsewhere and found its way out with the next tide. For all I know it could’ve come in from the Atlantic, all the way from America, or perhaps the Mediterranean. When it comes to tides, anything could come from anywhere and the stories it might have told could be forever lost. As I thought about that, a feeling came over me that I shouldn’t subject it to that fate again. People should know the story it has to tell. But to tell it, it needs the help of anyone willing to observe its progress through the world, kind of like the gnome from Amelie. The duck was worn from the salt water, though it still squeaked, so I figured it was in sufficient condition to keep for a while. The markings on the underside were faded to the point of near invisibility, but I was able to make out the letters “J” and “G,” just barely. I brushed off a couple loose tangles of seaweed and put the duck in my pocket. I wanted to keep the markings from fading further, as the person who marked it should still have recognition in this tale, so I took great care not to drop it back into the sea again.

At first, I thought about giving it away to some kid in the street, concluding later, however, that finding this duck was a special event. Therefore, I decided that to get rid of it, I had to experience another special event. So I held on, for four years, carrying it wherever I went until something wonderful happened in my life.

A little while ago, I finally found my special event. As I was walking through the park trying to figure out why my tenth girlfriend in as many months dumped me—she claimed it had something to do with me squeaking all the time—I spotted a bloke sleeping on one of the benches. Even though his beard was gray and his clothes were wine-stained, I recognised him immediately. And I’m sure whoever reads this will already guess the outcome, but I will write it anyway, because it’s part of my glorious story.

The man on the bench was…I’m all choked up here…my dad’s former business associate, and he knew exactly what had happened to him all those years ago. It turned out there was no foul play involved, but rather, my father had found a loophole in his business and was able to exploit it for millions of Eurodollars. It involved screwing over his business partner, a side effect of business, but it made him rich. When he disappeared and never came back, it wasn’t because he was in trouble, but because he moved to Tahiti without telling anyone. The knowledge that he was okay lifted a burden off my shoulders, and thus I decided the time was finally right to enact my plan for the duck. So I bought the cheap flash drive and an even cheaper necklace chain to attach it to, wrote the note and the story on my laptop—which I’m doing now—and in just a moment I will leave the duck on this park bench for the next bloke to share his happy moment.

So to whomever finds this duck, please remember to write your story when your tenure ends, so that the body following you can keep the continuity in line. And for the seventh person to find the duck, once you have your happy moment, please publish the story for the world to see. And with that, I will now squeeze the yellow rubber ducky one last time to say my goodbye and good luck. And no, I will not go looking for my dad. He could’ve told us he was heading for the South Pacific. He didn’t have to fake his own death.

 

The Present

 

When Johnny finished reading Matthew’s account, he leaned back in his chair and exhaled in relief. The ending was not as shocking as he had thought. Yes, it had found a spot somewhere in the pit of his chest, specifically behind the clavicle, in which to rock, but his world wasn’t shattered over the final truth of where the rubber ducky’s journey had begun. If anything, he was surprised that he was the guy destined to close the duck’s story.

Coming off a fresh graduation from Oxford had exhausted him enough for the moment, and discovering the connections he had with these complete strangers who at one time had carried the rubber duck was another drain on his soul. Perhaps his heart still ached for a repeat moment with Claire. But in all things considered, he was tired of fate, and just wanted to go home.

But he knew it was now his turn to write a story for the duck. And, as he sat in that chair at the Internet café, now staring at the blinking cursor under Matthew’s name, and realizing that he needed to scroll the thing back to the top just to keep consistent with the backwards chronology, he started wondering what his story could actually be. The rule was that he had to write a story based on a time when he had the duck, which started now. Yet, there had been several moments where he had already crossed paths with the duck, and he wondered if those moments were to count. He was there when Grant had reacted to the gunshot—the more he thought about it, the more he was certain of that. And, of course, he saw Carla and her subsequent internal snubbing of him, which he had no idea until now was actually happening. But, perhaps, most importantly, the duck was just a few feet from him when he’d met Claire, and of all the stories to happen to him in the last few months, that was the best, even better than getting sent off into the real world through the Oxford hands that had set him free. He pressed his fingertips to his eyes and leaned forward. It was the best story he had so far, and it was not a happy ending. None of them were. It was potentially a terrible way to end the duck’s story. But he didn’t know what the future had in store. He could end up carrying the duck around for years, experiencing nothing worth writing about. Or, he could write about his sad ending when a happier one might’ve been around the corner.

He was torn with indecision.

But he considered the duck’s journey getting to him. He wasn’t sure what he thought about fate or the hand of God, but he couldn’t deny the unusual circumstances that had brought the duck to him, or the number of times that he had come so close to taking these other people’s places. There was something in that story worth telling.

He stared at the duck. It was an inanimate object, so by itself it had nothing to tell him. Yet, it came with a collection of stories that had so much to share. What it couldn’t share were the stories that it had inspired in the years before Matthew had found it. It’s possible that his assumption that it had no story prior to washing ashore the Channel was the most accurate. But the duck didn’t get there on its own. It did have a story to tell.

Johnny rolled the duck over to confirm the faded markings on its underside. Then he closed his eyes.

He knew the story he really needed to tell. It was the reason why the duck had crossed his path so many times. It was the reason Johnny had to be the seventh person in the duck’s grand adventure story.

A few minutes later, he removed the flash drive from the computer and reattached it to the duck. He left the Internet café shortly after.

He found a restaurant close by and ordered a steak, a normal one without jelly. While he ate, he recharged his laptop battery. Originally, he was going to wait until he’d gotten home and unpacked before giving it back its juice, but he changed his mind. He decided it was more important that he started writing his story as soon as possible.

Between bites, Johnny squeezed the worn duck to allow its unchanging squeak to fill his ears. Although it was soft, the pitch was pleasant to him. The toy reminded him of a duck that he had once kept as a child. The patrons sitting at the tables around him glared at him as he squeezed it. Whatever judgment they harbored for him, he decided it didn’t bother him. He just kept squeezing the duck.

Once he finished dinner and unplugged the battery charger, he returned to the Tube. As he sat on the train, trying to make his way home, he thought about the life he’d once had—the life he lived in childhood—then he loaded up the document on his laptop and began to write his entry.

 

Read Part 6

The stuff that keeps me awake at night.

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