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Pieces of Youth

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When he was in his late teens and early twenties, Duck had a routine. The thing was, he figured out he was a man before everyone else did, and people didn’t like that. His mom didn’t like that.

( “Duck Newton,” he tells people.

“Duck? You’re one of Helen’s girls aren’t you… Ah! Ma-”

“Duck. It’s a nickname.” )

His dad was possibly the only person to truly love him as a son. He bought him his first binder, two sizes too big, it still fits him now. He argued with his wife over the dinner table about pronouns and there was whispers around town of divorce and splitting up the children.

(His body was found mangled at the edge of the forest one day. It didn’t look like a bearish handiwork, and it was the wrong season regardless, but yet…

The Police tell them it was a bear attack.)

As soon as their classes for the day finish, Duck and Juno make their way down to the abandoned department store, to get high with their fellow burnouts and play hockey.

Afterwards, Juno makes her way to her internship with the Forest Rangers and Duck makes his way into the forest. On the days she doesn’t have to work, they stay until the early hours of the morning and end up sleeping on the floor or at Juno’s place. Those are Duck’s favourite days.

(Juno’s parents are pretty accepting. They always mess up her pronouns and forget her name but Juno assures Duck it’s not in a cruel way.

He thinks it is, privately, knowing the subtle cruelty of his mother and his sister, but he doesn’t say anything.)

The forest isn’t his passion like it is Juno’s, but it is his. A place to hide from everything. He follows the river, curling deeper and darker, until he reaches his tree. It’s pine, like all the others around it. No special markers, but Duck would recognise it stoned, concussed and sleep deprived. He has, in fact.

In the many days and weeks he has spent out here, Duck has been busy, gouging out footholds so he can reach the branches. Like he does everyday when he reaches the tree, he climbs. Up and up, as high as he can go without drugs or the branches snapping. There, the only place he hasn’t shared.

The trunk has D U C K N E W T O N carved into it. He sits on a branch, hangs his bag on knot that hours of boredom have allowed him to carve B A G above.

He sits like this for a few hours, back against the trunk. Just thinking. Sometimes he smokes a couple of cigarettes, or gets tipsy. What’s the point not to, he thinks to himself. He thinks that a lot, burnt out and alone in small town West Virginia, nowhere to go. No great things in his future.

(They picked their names baked, Duck going by Mal and Juno trying out June. Teenagers, both of them, trying to make their way in a world that opposed them.

“But- No, no I get it, but what’s Mal s’posed to be short for?” June asks her friend, passing the blunt to him.

“Uhh,” Mal begins eloquently. “Mal… Mallard?”

They’re sitting on the a bench in the town park, the sun setting and their THC levels rising. Mal wants desperately not to go home. It’s become more and more unbearable as he’s grown and he’s thinking about never going back.

June laughs: “Like Ducks? Mal, short for, short for Duck?”

“Fuck yeah, that’s a sick name.” Mal says “I’m Duck now,”

They’re both slumped against each other, gasping through laughter when June asks,

“Okay, okay, Duck.” She pauses, contemplative. “What d’you think ‘bout June? For me?”

“Too much like Jane,” The newly minted Duck grimaces. “y’need a, a… a nickname!”

“Like, uh, Junie? Juneberry?”

They both cackle, leaning against each other. After a minute, they compose themselves slightly, to the sound of Duck’s wheezing.

He rubs tears of laughter out of his eyes. “More like… June-O! I ain’t calling you June forever,”

“Juno… Juno Divine… I like it!” )

When the lights in Kepler begin the wink out, visible from Duck’s position, he has a couple of options. He can sleep at the base of the tree, try and secure himself in the tree (he tried it once, before realising what a monumentally bad idea it was), or go to one of the bars he frequents.

(I could go to Juno’s, he thinks sometimes. Explain what’s going on, ask to stay with her.

He never does.)

It’s a bar night, Duck decides. He half-climbs, half-slips down, and walks back along the river in the moonlight. He ends up at one of the lesser known bars, those who know visit it tending not to spread the word too much. They are in West Virginia after all. He buys himself a drink, or two, or four. He’s not ID’d, of course. The folks here know all about him, the town small, the community even smaller. The barkeep must figure he needs this more than he needs the reminder of his traitorous ID.

From here, he either picks someone up, or he doesn’t. It’s too late to walk back to his tree, so he offers someone a good time and doesn’t take his clothes off. Or he sleeps on the one wooden bench in the town park, shivering in his sleeping bag.

Either way, he wakes at five, the soft alarm on his watch the only godsend in his life. Minerva doesn’t count.

(Duck sometimes doubts he made her up, which is a scarier thought than him just being insane.

The sword is hidden in the back of his closet at home, and it haunts him.)

At five, his mom leaves for work, meaning Jane is the only one in the house. She still aches for the sister she never had, but she’s marginally better than mom, so Duck goes home. Hungover, probably, or still buzzed on whatever he’d had the night before, Duck showers in the dark. Clothes and sleeping bag in the washing machine, if it’s empty. Eats something, be it a handful of cereal, or apples crunched on to distract from the feeling of water on his body.

Teeth brushed, clothes out of the machine, Duck gets ready for school. He’s majoring in forestry, no plans for the future apart from a vague idea of working in the Monongahela.

In his bag is everything he owns, his room filled with dresses and jewellery and wrong, a shrine to the person he never was.

His sleeping bag, a couple of changes of clothes (large and baggy, Duck took them from dad’s stuff before mom threw it out), the spare binder Juno bought him when she went out of town one time to get her hormones, pens and a toothbrush in the top pocket, two 85c notebooks, whatever money he manages to earn or find in the house, any food he can steal from the kitchen before Jane wakes up and without his mom noticing.

(Sometimes Jane catches him, whispers at dawn:

“Hey…”

“Duck.” He replies.

“Duck.” She smiles softly, probably seeing the sister he used to pretend to be. She probably thinks there’s something wrong with him, in the head.

He thinks she might be right, Minerva and the nightmares that come true, but not this. Never this.

“Come home,” she pleads, as if Duck isn’t standing in the kitchen stuffing stale pop tarts and bruised apples into his bag.

He shakes his head.

“Mom will forgive you, Duck,” deliberate and manipulative, “We love you, both of us.”

He wants to yell and cry and explain, but his voice catches in his throat. It gets high and desperate when he cries and that’s what Jane wants. Weakness that she can exploit: something she learnt from mom, even if she doesn’t know it.

He leaves without a word.)

Duck thinks about death so often it’s practically written into his routine,

9:00pm, walk to tree
9:15pm, contemplate your own mortality

Sometimes, he plans how he would go about it. It’s an idle thing, until it isn’t.

He could jump from the tree or intentionally overdose or sleep on the bench in shorts and a t-shirt come winter. He decides, that there’s too much chance, with those options. He has to get this right, despite his body’s inherent wrongness. Or perhaps because of it.

But, yeah, death sounds pretty appealing.

One day, he finds himself perched on the railing of the bridge, looking down at the swirling water below. It’s almost winter, so hardly anyone is going to risk driving, what with the ice, but the river isn’t frozen. It moves too fast for that, patches of ice washed past in an instant.

He drowns in that river one night. Or maybe he freezes.

Regardless, he is thrust onto land, shivering and shaking with Minerva’s voice reverberating in his ears,

“You cannot take the easy path, Duck Newton! Your destiny awaits and until it is fulfilled it is your duty to be there to fulfil it!”

He cries, soaking wet and heaving water from his stomach, mourning the death he feels like he is owed.

(Later, with Leo:

“So, if you were watching over me, or whatever, did Minerva tell you why she stopped talking to me?”

“Ah, sort of? She said the stress of it was giving you trouble.”

Duck breathes out through his nose humourlessly. “Yeah, sounds about right.” )

Duck calls Juno sobbing, his breath rapid, in near hysterics. He’s forgotten his exact words, but he remembers how his throat was raw and his lips were blue. He babbles to her, as she pulls on a jacket and scribbles a note explaining where she’s gone if her parents wake up and the car’s missing.

Juno drives him to the hospital, a blur of cold and questions and jerking away from the probing hands. She tells the doctors that he fell in the river, but he is always paranoid that they saw through that, realised what really happened.

(Later, he’s getting coffee for Aubrey, still shaky from the incident in Leo’s Store.

He’s trying to avoid eye contact with the nurses that smile tiredly as they rush past.

He picks at the cuticles of his thumbs until they bleed and can’t tell whether he’s imagining the pity on their faces.)

Juno sits at the end of his bed, facing him. They’re both holding cups of coffee, Duck’s hands shaky and Juno’s feet near his elbows.

Juno takes a sip. “Are you… good? Like, are you alright, Duck?”

“Yeah.” It hurts his throat to speak. “They said I had hypothermia, you were there for that, but y’know me… bouncing back from stuff.”

She sighs as she looks at him and Duck can tell she’s exhausted.

“That’s not… You know that’s not what I meant,”

He takes a long sip to avoid answering.

“You didn’t fall into that river, despite what I told the Doc.” She glances over at the empty bed next to him and runs her fingers through her hair. It’s short, still in that awkward stage of growing out and the gesture makes it stick up more than it already did from sleep.

The humour Duck finds in this is lost when she builds up the courage to speak.

“Did you… You must’a known what you were doing. You’re not, like, fried right now. You had a plan.” Duck can feel the tears burning in his eyes as she continues, “Please tell me it wasn’t what I think it is.”

He rubs at an eye, trying to get rid of the tears before Juno can notice. “I… I can’t.”

Her breath catches.

“When you called me, I was scared. I was so scared. You’re my friend, Duck. You can talk to me. Even… even about this.”

(Later, Duck skateboards to work after fighting a tree and having a panic attack in front of Leo Tarkesian. Juno, who already thinks he’s on drugs again, is worried. They’re in the station together after dark when Duck tries to explain.

“For a while, it was… nothing could hurt me,” He begins, breaking the silence. “But recently… I can get hurt. And I’m scared, Juno. The world is scary. All that stuff around town…”

Juno looks up from the paperwork she’s been filling out and slides it away from herself. Rubs an eye.

“What are you talking about, Duck?”

He’d practiced this over and over in his head, but all he manages is: “Fuck, Juno. I might die.”

She looks alarmed.

“That thing you did, when we were kids. Are you going to…”

“No! No, I’m… good. On that front.”

“I’m worried about you, Duck. If you ever stop being good… I just… I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t around.” )

After he’s discharged, Juno forces him to stay with her for a couple of weeks. He insists he’s fine, but she’s worried what will happen if he leaves her sight. He gets a job at the general store and cleans up his act in class to prove something to her, functioning purely out of spite.

She’s impressed, despite herself. She even manages to get Duck to apply for the same internship with the Forest Rangers. He gets it, of course. There’s surprisingly little interest in a late night half research half patrol job in the Monongahela National Forest.

(Later, he explains his job to Mama. She’s dismissive. She wants him to fight an Abomination.

Even through the urgency, Duck is proud of himself. Proud of his job. He worked hard for it, and he’s happy where he is.)

He can’t say everything works out, but it goes well enough. Duck and Juno graduate and get full-time jobs as Forest Rangers. They briefly live together, before finding their own places. They drive out of town together to get their hormones.

(A list of surprising things:
1. Duck starts actually being happy with his body.
2. People start seeing him as Duck before seeing him as Helen’s daughter.
3. Duck gets a cat.)

When he’s in his early thirties, his mom dies. She left everything to Jane in her will, but Jane calls him after the funeral he didn’t attend.

(“I know we didn’t get along.” She says, in lieu of a hello. Her voice is calm. There is no hint of tears.

“Why are you calling me?” Duck is tired. He thought he’d left all this behind.

“Mom was wrong.”

Duck is blindsided by this. Jane always seemed to agree with mom. “What?”

Jane breathes a sad laugh. “You’re my brother, Duck. I’m a dick for not accepting that before.”

Still, Duck is suspicious. “Why? Why did you-”

“I’m gay.”

“Oh.”

They’re both silent for a while.

“So am I. Just, just so you know.”

Jane laughs, properly this time. “Everyone knows that, Duck. But thanks.” )

Jane invites him over to mom’s place. Together, they collect the things they want. Duck tucks Beacon in the bottom of his box. June finds some of dad’s old stuff for him, and he leaves with books and records and his sister’s phone number.

“I guess I’m just going to sell most of this.” Juno says, glancing around. “Need any furniture?”

Duck does. Then, with Jane’s help, he doesn’t.

( “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Jane makes half-hearted finger guns.

It’s still awkward between them, but they’re trying. Jane hugs him before she leaves and whispers into his neck:

“I’m glad you’re my brother, Duck.” )

He gives the weird sword to the guy who owns the Cryptonomica. The ‘museum’ used to belong to an old lady named Victoria, so Duck assumes this guy must be her nephew or something. He came to Kepler only a few years ago, probably when it became clear Victoria wasn’t going to get better.

The guy—Ned Chicane—stumbles over introducing himself, almost says something else, and Duck grins widely.

“I’m Duck Newton. It’s a nickname.”