On the way out of the big office building, Mom was furious. Pop was pensive. Aunt Matilda was crying and dabbing at the tears with a handkerchief.
Don and Della talked to each other quietly, like they always did when they weren't having another of their screaming fights. The twins didn't always get along, and sometimes the whispering could be worse than the yelling.
"You shouldn't oughta've done that," Della said.
"Aw, shut your yap!" Donald replied. "He was asking for it!"
"Well, yeah," Della said, rolling her eyes. "But if he'd caught you, or if Mom and Pop saw you, you'da been been in so much trouble. You're so dumb."
"You're the dumb one. Dumbella. That oughta be your name from now on." Donald could still see it in his head. The party had been a bust anyway – Donald hadn't wanted to spend time with all of the old people Pop worked with, they hadn't been allowed to cut the cake, and the sandwiches had been terrible. And then the cranky old man Mom said was their uncle had shown up, and he and Mom had started yelling at each other, and he threw everybody out. And he'd just been standing there, his back so temptingly turned. He'd been the perfect target, and Donald had given him just what he deserved – a good swift kick to the behind.
"Nuh-uh. You oughta be Dumbald. Dumb ol' Dumbald Duck, who coulda gotten caught by a cranky old man who'd lock him in a coal mine forever."
"That's stupid. I wouldn't get caught! And he wouldn't stick me in a coal mine even if he did!" He looked up at his mother. "Right, Mom?"
Mom looked over, pulling herself out of her tirade to nobody in particular about what she'd do to Scrooge if she ever saw him again. "What did you say, Don?"
"Unca Scrooge wouldn't throw me in a coal mine, would he?"
"I wouldn't put it past that greedy, arrogant, ungrateful little – ooh! We stay here and work our fingers to the bone for him for the last twenty years, and this is the thanks we get? He wouldn't even have a business to come back to if your father hadn't been here holding things together..." And she was off again, ranting and paying no attention to whether anyone was actually listening to her.
"See?" Della said. "Toldya it was dumb."
"Yeah? Well... well, it'd be even dumber to just let him get away with being such a meanie!"
"Which is why somebody smart woulda done something that he wouldn't even notice. Like slip in while he was chasing you and rig up his chair."
"Pfft. What, like a whoopie cushion? That woulda been totally dumb. Wouldn't even get to see the look on his face."
"Yeah, a whoopie cushion woulda been dumb. But what about a big firecracker with a really long fuse?"
Donald eyed her suspiciously. "Where would you get a firecracker?"
"Made it myself," Della said smugly. "I won the Junior Chickadee Patrol Festival Planner badge with full fireworks honors. Just what have you been learning in the Little Boneheads?"
"Booneheads! And I've been learning lots of stuff. Building campfires, making shelters, tying knots..."
"Oh, is that what you were doing yesterday, Dumbald? When you got all tangled up and Pop had to spend an hour getting you out of the ropes?"
He stuck his tongue out at her, and she blew him a raspberry right back, and a few seconds longer and one of them would have been sure to throw the first punch, but right about then they heard a loud bang echoing from an open window high above, followed by a stream of shouts and curse words that neither of them would ever have admitted knowing.
Della smiled, stifling a laugh so Mom wouldn't hear, and Donald, no matter how hard he tried, couldn't stop a tiny smirk from showing itself on his face.
Okay, maybe the dummy could be fun sometimes, too.
"This is all your fault, you know."
Donald craned his neck around to glower at Della. "Me?! What did I do?"
"You blew the whole plan right in front of their faces, you numbskull!
"I hadda get you out of there! It was nuts! Trying a scheme like that on dangerous criminals!"
"We're not all that dangerous," the man Donald was holding up against a wall by his collar said. "Really just local color. Cheeky rascals at worst..."
"Shaddup!" Donald gave him a harsh shake without even looking at him, and the roughneck thoughtfully quieted down. "You think they wouldn'ta figured out it was costume jewelery eventually? Then whaddaya think they'd do to you? Huh? Crooks like these wouldn't just let you walk away after you bilk them out of hundreds of dollars!"
"No, no, feel free to walk away." The gang leader's voice was rather muffled by the trash can Della had stuffed him into, head first. "We'll, uh... we'll let you off with a warning this time. Please?"
Della ignored him, kicking the can over and sending it rolling down the street without a second thought. She dusted off her hands as Donald tossed the one he was holding into a dumpster, where he landed on top of the last two he'd knocked out, who were themselves on top of the first three that Della had knocked silly.
"I'm old enough to take care of myself, Dumbald. I don't need you butting in every time you think I'm in trouble."
"Why not? You do it often enough. You even snuck off after me when I went camping last summer, remember? Just because you thought I'd get lost or something."
"You did get lost. And nearly fell off a cliff. And nearly drowned. And got chased up a tree by a bear..."
"That bear was only there because you knocked down that beehive trying to get me out of the river! And I only fell in the river because you got my fishing line snarled with my life jacket when that big trout came along!"
"But I only – oooh, never mind. I don't have the energy to argue with you right now." She sighed and sat down on the curb.
"That's a new one," Donald said, sitting down next to her. "Why've you been running around so much, anyway? You've had three jobs in the past two weeks, plus this big scam thing and who knows what other stuff you haven't told me about yet..."
"I need money. Like, a lot of money."
"You're always saying that. You and your parties and your shopping and living the high life..."
"No! Not this time. Don..." She took a deep breath. "I'm pregnant."
It took few moments for this to sink in. The words seemed completely meaningless until something snapped inside his head. "Oh, you've gotta be joking..."
"Do I look like I'm joking? You think I'd even joke about something like this?"
Della glared at him. "You even finish that question, you'll be eating through a straw, buster. Who do you think?"
Well, of course. Whatever Donald would say about Dumbella, he knew she wasn't the cheating type. "That doggone two-bit goody-two-shoes! I always knew he was a louse. Doin' something like this to my sister... I oughta...."
"I'm gonna elope with him."
"What?!" Donald jumped in surprise, looking over at her. "But... but..." His brain was still trying desperately to catch up with reality.
"That's why I need the money. Mom and Pop sure aren't gonna pay for a wedding, or for me to move out and find a place of our own."
"Well, sure! They had the sense not to have kids until they were, what, forty? Forty-five? If they got wind that you're... that you're..." He couldn't even finish the sentence.
Della sighed. "Maybe I'll go back out to Calisota. We could stay with Grandma, or Uncle Goostave and Aunt Daphne – maybe a bit of her luck will rub off on me..."
"Ha! And Cousin Gladstone? I give you ten minutes before he drives you nuts."
"Oh, shut your yap – Gladstone's a perfectly nice guy! I don't get this stupid rivalry you have with him."
"He's a pain in the tailfeathers, with all that stupid good luck and his stupid smug satisfaction. And... and... And that's not the point! You think Mom wouldn't know where to find you? She'd call up Grandma and drag you back here by the beak so fast your eyes'd spin."
"Well what else am I supposed to do?" Della snapped, glaring at him – then quickly turning away. Not quite quick enough to hide the tears in her eyes, but quick enough to pretend. "I can't stay here. I just couldn't face Mom and Pop. We'd all have aneurisms by the first day."
"What about the jerk's family? You could stay with them..."
"If you'd ever actually taken any time to get to know him, Dumbald, you would know his family's gone. I'm all he's got now..."
Donald bit back a reflexive retort. There was something intensely infuriating about seeing Dumbella just sitting there, so drained and helpless. That wasn't the sister who'd been getting on his nerves since the day they both were hatched. If she wouldn't fight back, wouldn't put up more than a few token return jibes, then... well, it just wasn't right.
Donald sighed. "Y'know, I was just reading, the other day."
"Shaddup. There was this bit in a magazine about a new government program. It's some kind of goodwill thing for South America – 'Salad Amigos' or something like that. Get this – they actually pay you to go down there and just talk to people. Make friends, see the sights, make the good ol' U.S. of A. look good."
She completely ignored the obvious opening to needle him. Or missed it entirely, which was even worse. "Don, I can't just pull up stakes and move to Mexico or wherever. Not with a duckling on the way..."
"Who says I was talking about you? I wanna get out of this one-horse town and see the world! Not like I'd want you tagging along, anyway." He looked up into the sky. "I mean, can you imagine? If Mom and Pop thought you'd snuck off after me, they'd be trying to get in touch with me all the time so I'd send you back, and I dunno what the telephone or telegraph situation is like in South America. Could even be months before they managed to catch up with me, and then what'd we do if it turned out you'd been somewhere else all along? It'd be just one big mess."
Della looked over at him, mouth slightly agape. "Don... you don't mean..."
"What?" Donald glowered at her. "I'm not saying anything! If you've come up with another hair-brained plan or something, leave me out of it! Huh. Dumb ol' Dumbella Duck, same as always. How'd you manage to find a bland no-good milquetoast who actually has the same last name, anyway? Dating another Duck – that's just stupid of you. Don't even get a new name out of the deal."
Della jumped at him and clung to him in a tight hug. "Don... I don't say this much, but... thank you."
"Aw, lay off!" Donald said, squirming slightly but not really trying to get free.
Then she pulled back and slugged him in the gut. "But bad-mouth my fiance one more time and I'm gonna wring your neck, you got that?"
"Wak! Why you little...!"
He chased her all the way back home. Which was good. That way neither of them could see how much the other was smiling.
Dumbella had really done it this time. She'd sent a postcard, out of the blue. A postcard! A guy didn't hear from his sister for years, and then she just tells him she's leaving her kids with him for a visit. Didn't even come in person. Not after more than ten years apart. Just one sentence. 'Dear Brother – I am sending your angel nephews to visit you – Sister Dumbella.'
And the kids! Her little angels were complete devils. Oh, he'd tried to be nice to them, like that stupid book said. Soothing words, music time, a nice dinner. And what did he get? Indoor tricycle polo, hand sandwiches, and of course the hot mustard pie. It was enough to turn a guy's stomach.
At least they were gone, just as fast as they'd arrived. Tricycling out the door without so much as a by-your-leave. Probably back to the train station to go back home to Burbank – it had been a short visit, but not short enough in Donald's eyes. He could easily go ten more years without seeing those brats again.
He bent over, sweeping up shards of the crockery they'd broken into the dustpan. Maybe now he could get the place cleaned up, and then have a nice nap...
Something kicked him in the tail, knocking him face-first into the shattered plates, and two more kicks swiftly followed. He felt something raining down on him, like fluttering leaves.
"We got the mail, Unca Donald!"
Oh, lord. They hadn't left at all.
He felt his temper rising again. To heck with what the book said. These kids could use a good paddling. He dug his fingers into the carpet, pushing himself up...
One last letter dropped itself on his bill. He crossed his eyes as he tried to focus on it.
'Dear Brother – I'm sorry, but I can't pick the boys up right away.'
It was another postcard from Dumbella. He grabbed it as he stood up, muttering the words aloud as he read.
"'I have to go on an unexpected trip. It might be a month or more. The boys put a firecracker under their poor father's chair –' Ha! Woulda liked to see that! '– and he's in the hospital with a nervous condition. Until I get back, please take care of the boys for me. However long it takes. – Sister Dumbella.' What?!?"
Donald threw the card to the floor. "Why, of all the – does she really think – what could she possibly – aaugh!"
From the distance he heard the sound of shattering crockery. More dishes getting broken. He caught a glimpse of one of the brats as they galloped through the kitchen, 'riding' a broom and waving around the fireplace poker like a sword.
How did she expect him to live with these little monsters? Why, he'd be in fear of his life – firecrackers under a chair? What kind of brat even thinks of something like that, and who could ever find it funny? It must have been their father's influence – he'd always known that guy was no good. These kids would run him out of house and home – the breakages alone would bankrupt him, never mind whatever it cost to actually feed them once they decided dinner was more important than horsing around.
In the old days, he would've walked right up to Dumbella and chewed her out for what her brats were doing. He could feel just what he'd say, boiling up inside him, but with nowhere to go – even at her worst, she'd at least listen to him, which these kids showed no sign of doing. Where the heck was she?
More than ten years, it had been. By the time he'd gotten back from South America (leaving behind some great friends – what had he been thinking?) the country was on the verge of war. No sooner had he settled back in with Mom and Pop than he'd gotten the letter from the draft board. The next year had been miserable – basic training and base duties, administered by what had to be the worst drill sergeant ever. He'd mustered out at the end of the year, just in time to miss the actual start of the war, thank goodness.
Afterwards, he'd ended up in Duckburg, purely by chance. And while that had in no way been motivated by it being her last known address, he still felt a bit disappointed when he learned she'd moved to another state entirely while he was gone. He'd asked Grandma, but no luck – Della hadn't left a forwarding address or even a phone number. She'd sent him a postcard once, with no return address, just after he'd moved in, with a picture of the baby triplets on it. And then that was it, until these last two cards, out of nowhere, dumping a huge burden on him...
...in which she'd called herself Dumbella. And hadn't called him Dumbald even once.
She'd never really done that before, had she? Even at her lowest.
He found himself wondering just what had been happening down in Burbank. Why she'd had to leave so suddenly. Why she didn't know when she'd be back...
He shook his head roughly, trying to clear his thoughts. None of that mattered. The dummy was going to be gone for a while, and that was that. He just had to deal with it.
He peeked into his wallet, letting a moth escape. There was a little cash left there, from that last job selling snowplows, which had been about as profitable as you'd expect in summer. Darned if he wasn't going to have to find another job now. They never seemed to last long for some reason.
"Doggone sister of mine," he mumbled irately. "Does she have any idea how much beds even cost these days?"
"Beds?" One of the kids – Huey, that was the name, the one with that fleck in his eye – had stopped his mock cavalry charge to look at Donald in surprise.
"Well, yeah. If you're gonna be staying here I can't have you sleeping on the couch the whole time. That'd just be stupid."
"So... we're really gonna stay here?" This was Louie, probably – yeah, slightly shorter than the other two.
"You aren't sending us home?" Dewey, who had the bill that turned up slightly at the end. He supposed he'd have to start figuring out ways to tell them apart if they were going to be hanging around.
"What, to an empty house? What are you, nuts? Now go make yourselves useful and clean out the spare room. I gotta go find a furniture store that delivers on short notice..."
He stomped over to the door and grabbed his cap from the hatrack. "And don't you kids make any more of a mess while I'm gone! Just put everything from the spare room in the basement and..." He glanced back. The kids weren't saying anything – just standing there, looking at each other with some sort of emotion he couldn't pin down. Not satisfaction, not distaste, not the rambunctious wildness they'd had up until now. It was almost... disbelief? Relief? Something like that. What, had they really thought he'd just throw them out in the street? Seriously?
"Well? What are you kids waiting for? Snap to it!"
And in a flash, they were off to the spare room, leaving their brooms and makeshift swords behind them. They'd actually listened to him? Huh. Maybe this wouldn't be...
"Heave-ho! Look out below!"
The crash of his old record collection landing at the base of the basement stairs was like a dagger through his heart.
As he slipped out the front door, struggling to keep his temper down, he was sure of exactly one thing: from this moment on, his life would be utterly miserable until Della came back to take them away.
"Launcher ready, Rear Admiral Dewey?"
"Prepped and set, Rear Admiral Huey. Rear Admiral Louie, the payload?"
"Loaded on board! We are go for launch in T-minus three minutes."
Donald put his feet up on the ottoman and opened his paper, half-listening to the boys through the open window. Yet another Junior Woodchuck activity for yet another medal or merit badge or something. It was a little silly how caught up they got in all of it, but it kept them busy and was probably good for them, so Donald couldn't complain.
The newspaper was full of the usual stuff. He automatically gravitated to the articles of personal interest – Duckburg wasn't such a large town that the paper would overlook them. Daisy's tatting circle was organizing a charity crochet drive for clawless calico cats, which he made a mental note to stay as far away from as he possibly could. There were reports of Uncle Scrooge having made yet another unusual acquisition – a trunk of old maps and charts used by some guy named Piri Reis. Probably a sign there was more treasure hunting to come in the near future – at thirty cents an hour, of course. He'd long since stopped expecting any reasonable wage. Another Woodchuck Jamboree coming up, but he'd known about that for weeks now. Oh, and a story about Gladstone winning a zeppelin in a raffle – that was sure to be the source of many more headaches.
And, as usual, nothing about her.
He never expected anything, of course, but somehow, he kept on looking. Sometimes he'd see a story somewhere and wonder if she had anything to do with it – a con artist being run out of a town in Iowa, a criminal group in New Jersey collapsing because someone had swindled them out of their ill-gotten gains, the Brutopian government accusing America of stealing their secrets with a pair of undercover agents. Dozens more stories like that where he could imagine she might be involved somehow. It wasn't impossible. The family tended to get into weird adventures – even before he'd started tagging along with Uncle Scrooge for pittance wages, he'd been making friends all across South America and getting involved with some truly bizarre jobs right here in Duckburg. One of Della's get-rich-quick schemes could've landed her in just about any kind of hot water you'd care to imagine.
He always wondered. He'd made a few attempts, over the years. Angrily when he'd just started taking care of the boys, or with more worry as the time dragged on. But she'd left no forwarding address when she left Burbank. No hospital he could find back in or near Burbank had any records of admitting a Mr. Duck around the right time. The boys knew their old address, but the house had been repossessed by the bank when she stopped paying the mortgage. For all intents and purposes, the two of them had just... vanished.
Uncle Scrooge could probably have tracked her down, with his global empire and massive resources, though whatever expenses were involved would probably give him a heart attack. Heck, even Gladstone could probably find her if he wanted to – he'd just walk down the street and bump into her turning the corner, or find a lost plane ticket that dropped him off right at her doorstep. Not that he'd ever ask either of them to do it, though. After all, that might make them think he was actually worried about that dummy.
Nah, better to just let it lie like this. Someday she'd blow back into his life with another wild story,
and they'd get into yet another fight about how irresponsible she'd been, and then – well, who knows? Ever since they'd reconciled Uncle Scrooge with Aunt Matilda, just about anything seemed possible.
He heard a sort of hissing roar from out the window – by now, he was familiar with the sound. Model rockets were a favorite Woodchuck activity – he'd counted at least half a dozen in the past two weeks. This at least sounded like one of the smaller ones, not big enough to drop a satellite on him or anything.
Funny how it kept on getting louder, though...
He had just enough time to see the smoke coming out from under his armchair before everything went white.
"Gee, we're sorry, Unca Donald!"
The boys were looking up at him with worry. "We were trying a new type of tailfin, but we shouldn't oughta've tweaked it quite so much. It just tilted over in midair and went through the window, and when it got stuck under your chair, the fuel must have detonated all at once..." Dewey pulled the remains of the rocket out from under the cushion and looked at it mournfully.
"Just hang on, Unca Donald! We'll get you down!" Huey said, running to the closet where they kept the stepladder. At least, Donald hoped he was going for the stepladder. They also kept the blankets in there. And the fishing poles.
Yeah, there was definitely a lot of material for a big fight with Della if she ever showed up again. But funnily enough, things like this didn't feel like they were worth arguing about. The boys were, well, the boys. They were just part of life. Sure, Della, had just gone and dumped them on him, but if she hadn't, what the heck would his life be like now? He couldn't imagine it. He might not even have ever met Uncle Scrooge again. A life spent mooning after Daisy, arguing with Gladstone, feuding with Jones next door... It wouldn't be bad, per se, but there would just be something missing from it.
No, life was good. And even if the boys shouldn't ought to have let that rocket get under his chair, he couldn't find it in him to complain. There'd been a time when he'd have blown up at having been... well, blown up. Right now? Well, he might as well lend them a hand cleaning up. And maybe if the boys did a good job, a hug wouldn't be out of the question.
Just as soon as he could dig his fingers out of the ceiling plaster.