Chapter 1: A Ring Around The Moon
In which Lena arrives in Duckburg.
As the bus drove on through the night, Lena alternated between letting her head bounce against the vibrating window and looking out through it in wonder. There were no walls there to see, no tall barbed wire fence. There was only the grass and trees, and occasionally a barn, along this highway through the darkness. Above it all, there was the moon, full and round, shining a ring of white light against the clouds.
It was big out there, the world. Bigger than her. Maybe too big. Her world had been so small the past five years.
Had it been five? Sometimes it felt like fifty. But the face that occasionally stared back at her from the window, in the moments when it was darker outside of the bus than inside, was not the face of a sixty-plus-year-old. Assuming she remembered what they looked like.
Lena pulled her gaze away from the window and the world beyond, and returned it to the piece of paper in her lap, with its torn edge and its deep creases from repeated folding and unfolding. She looked at the picture there for a moment, focusing on the trees and the one-sentence caption. Simple. Succinct. More digestible than a too-huge world lit only by the ring around the moon and flying past her at sixty-five miles per hour.
That was where she was going. That was where she’d have her fresh start. She’d lost track of the miles long ago, just as she’d lost track of the years, but she hadn’t lost sight of where she was going. That, she couldn’t afford to do.
The bus came to a squeaky, whiny stop in the darkness, near a bench at the top of a slowly-sloping hill.
“Here’s your stop,” said the driver.
There was no one else on the bus that he could have been talking to, but Lena didn’t get up, looking out the window.
“This is Duckburg?” she said. What she saw didn’t seem to fit the name.
The driver opened the door, waving a hand in a sort of sarcastic shrug at the bench, and the hill, and the small collection of houses at its base. “What there is, is what you see.”
Lena zipped up her coat, carefully tucked the picture into her pocket, and pulled her backpack over her shoulders.
As soon as she was on the ground, the driver closed the door and the bus pulled away. There was no turning back now, even if she’d had anywhere else to go. Lena tucked her hands under her arms and did her best not to shiver.
Footsteps coming up the hill, crunching in the gravel that passed for a road, called her attention to someone else’s arrival out of the darkness – someone in a warmer coat than hers, and wearing gloves, one of which was holding a cup of coffee, while the other held open a folder of papers.
He only half looked at her, his frown mostly devoted to the papers. “Lena de Spell?” he said, in an overly-lisping but still more or less comprehensible voice.
“Just Lena is fine.”
The moonlight glinted off a badge on the man’s coat – a sheriff’s badge, star-shaped, like on movie posters.
When he didn’t say anything, Lena did: “Warden Halverson said he would call ahead.”
“Yeah, sure, I got a call from the prison,” said the sheriff. “But to be honest, Miss de Spell, if the bus hadn’t left, I would’ve put you back on it.”
Lena tried to force a joking smile, but her teeth threatened to chatter if she did. “There something wrong with this place?”
The sheriff barked out a derisive laugh. “Look around you!” he said, sweeping a hand down the hill in the same way the bus driver had. “Duckburg’s a ghost town. There’s nothing here. Not even a cell tower.”
Lena hesitated. “The warden said that –”
“I really don’t care what the warden said, Miss de Spell. He’s not the one freezing his tail off at this bus stop, now is he?”
“No sir,” said Lena, wishing he would stop calling her that.
“So why’d you choose Duckburg?”
Lena said nothing.
“Miss de Spell –”
“Fine, then, Lena. It’s my job to know why you’re here, okay? So why Duckburg?”
Lena took the folded paper out of her pocket.
“I tore this out of an old travel book someone donated to the prison,” she said, handing the sheriff the paper, her fingers reluctant to let go.
He unfolded it, looking over the picture and reading the caption aloud: “Autumn colors along Copper Creek near Duckburg, Wisconsin.” He exhaled in what might have been a laugh, and passed the paper back to Lena. “You’re a little late.”
“What, has the creek dried up?” said Lena, stashing the page back in her pocket, safe again.
“It’s frozen,” said the sheriff. “And the fall colors are long gone.”
“I hope to be here when they come back,” Lena said, trying to sound confident.
The sheriff rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, in the meantime, I don’t know what the heck I’m gonna do with you.” He took a sip from the coffee cup and made a face. “If that isn’t insult to injury – cold coffee.”
Then he paused, an idea glinting somewhere in those grumpy eyes.
“Grab your things,” he said. Lena tugged at the backpack straps pointedly, and the sheriff paused again, as though only just now noticing that that was all she had with her. He recovered quickly enough from his surprise and led the way down the hill and into town – not that there was much of a border between nature and the streets.
Lena followed the sheriff through Duckburg and a light curtain of midnight snow. As they passed the one-and-two-story houses, she had the distinct feeling of being watched, by the windows in the houses, and the faces she couldn’t see hiding behind their curtains, peeking out to stare at the newcomer.
“Good,” the sheriff said suddenly, “there’s a light on over at the Sunchaser.”
The sheriff pointed ahead, at a long, two-story building at the edge of town – it hadn’t taken any time at all to cross from one side to the other. “It’s your best chance for a job, and besides the local jail, it’s got the only guest room in town. Lucky for you, Uncle Scrooge’s burning the midnight oil.”
Lena didn’t ask who Uncle Scrooge was. She had a feeling she’d find out soon enough.
Uncle Scrooge was the old duck coming onto the back porch as the sheriff and Lena stepped onto the front, passing beneath a large sign with a red painted plane and the words The Sunchaser Grill. Or rather, he was trying to come in – but his arms were laden with firewood, and his foot wasn’t quite dexterous enough to open the door, leaving him teetering on the edge of the porch.
“Uncle Scrooge?” the sheriff called ahead as he pushed his way into the grill, crossing towards the back porch. “I saw the light. You still up?”
“No,” said Scrooge.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” The sheriff grabbed the door, and Scrooge stomped in without so much as a thank-you. Lena observed that the sheriff didn’t seem to expect one.
She turned her head, looking around the inside of the Sunchaser. It was a diner, not a large one, but then nothing in Duckburg was large besides the trees that surrounded it, and so this cramped room of tables and chairs could probably still hold the entire town at once if it had to. At one end there was a long kitchen counter, with tall diner chairs on one side and a kitchen space behind it. In the corner, a staircase led upwards into shadow. Though most of the building was wood and brick, some parts of it seemed to be made of long pieces of red metal instead – maybe it was fatigue from the long day on the road, but Lena could have sworn that there was a propeller in the corner by the stairs.
She returned her attention to the sheriff.
“You know, Uncle Scrooge,” the sheriff was saying, “you could use a waitress this winter.”
“Another body in here won’t make me any younger, Donald,” Scrooge replied in a strong Scottish accent, sitting heavily in one of the tall chairs at the counter.
“The firewood isn’t going to walk by itself.”
Scrooge’s frown deepened. “I’m perfectly self-sufficient, lad, and you know it.”
“Come on, Uncle Scrooge. You know I wouldn’t come to you about this if I had any other options.”
“Oh yes, I know.”
Scrooge looked across the room at Lena, who was doing her best to seem like a part of the furniture.
“Do you remember the summer I took in that stray dog for you, and I had to replace all my carpets?” he said.
“Yeah, well, this time I’m pretty sure I’ve brought home something housebroken,” said Donald.
Lena said nothing.
Scrooge sighed. “Just so you know, I’m not making any promises.”
The sheriff beckoned to Lena, who took a few steps towards the two men.
“Lena,” he said, “this is Scrooge McDuck.”
Lena and Scrooge looked at each other in silence.
“Looks like you’re all set,” Donald finally said. “Thanks, Uncle Scrooge. I owe you one.”
“I’ll add it to the list,” said Scrooge.
Lena turned her head to watch Donald leave the grill and the front door swing shut behind him. When she turned around again, Scrooge had already begun his way up the stairs, and she had to scurry to follow.
“The bathroom’s at the end of the hall,” Scrooge said, not turning around. “There’s plenty of hot water, but not if you dawdle, so don’t go wasting it. There’s an extra blanket in the cedar chest if you need it. I give you breakfast at six. Work starts at six-thirty sharp. Anything else you need to know will keep till then.”
And then he stepped into a bedroom and closed the door behind him, leaving Lena alone in the dark, narrow hallway. She walked down it to the only other room with a bed, and almost nothing else besides – four empty white walls, a spartan cell. Lena half thought she might have gotten turned around on the bus and wound up back where she’d started.
But there was the window.
Lena dropped her backpack on the bed and approached it, pulling back the blinds and pushing up the glass. Cold air flowed in, but she paid it no mind, stretching a hand through this window with no bars, twisting her fingers in the moonlight.
Then she closed the window, drew the blinds, and let the darkness lull her to sleep.
Chapter 2: Something’s Cooking at the Sunchaser Grill
In which Lena has her first day of work.
Almost before Lena was fully awake, the workday had begun, and Scrooge was giving her orders.
“Lena! There’s onions in the cellar that need to come up! And start some water boiling for oatmeal!”
“Yes sir,” Lena said, hurrying to get everything done.
“And get my nephew some coffee,” Scrooge added as the front door to the Sunchaser opened and the sheriff came in. “Morning, Donald.”
“Good morning, Uncle Scrooge,” Donald replied. Three teenage boys stepped into the diner after him – identical triplets, though distinct in the color of their shirts and their general demeanor.
“Those potatoes won’t peel themselves, Lena!” Scrooge called to the kitchen before acknowledging the next patron to enter the grill – a tall, broad woman, with hair as grey as Scrooge’s own. “Bentina.”
“Mr. McDuck.” As the woman walked to take a seat near Donald, her eyes weren’t on the host, but on the back of the girl in the kitchen.
Scrooge re-entered the kitchen, and whatever order he was about to add to the lengthening list was interrupted by Lena stumbling with the heavy pot of water, grabbing at the stove for balance, and yelping as her hand landed on the hot stovetop.
“Keep your brain on what you’re doing, girl!” Scrooge scolded, righting the pot as Lena stepped aside to nurse her hand.
She muttered something under her breath, and a pale pink light spread over her scalded fingers.
Scrooge noticed the glow. “What are you doing, there?!” he snapped, grabbing at Lena’s wrist.
Lena startled even more than she had at the burn, snatching her hand away with a shout.
“Don’t grab at me, old man!”
Scrooge held up a finger in her face. “You watch yourself,” he said, “or I’ll put you out on the street like that!” He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
“You tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” Lena shot right back at him, “but don’t ever grab at me!”
Scrooge’s frown deepened, and Lena had to wonder just how deep it could go.
“Show me your hand,” he said, and Lena sullenly extended the requested limb. The pink light was gone, but sure enough, the skin was unmarked, without any sign of a burn.
“I won’t have any of that supernatural trickery around here,” he said in a low, dangerous voice. “Not in my kitchen, not in my house, and not in my town. Do you understand?”
Scrooge turned away from Lena and back towards the dining room. Someone was standing at the counter, putting no effort into pretending he wasn’t eavesdropping.
“Aren’t you the early bird today, Gyro?” said Scrooge.
“I thought you might need something from the store,” Gyro replied coolly, his eyes on the girl preparing a carafe of coffee with more caution this time.
“Well, I don’t,” said Scrooge. “If you’re here, who’s minding it?”
“Fenton, for the moment.”
“Nice to see you giving him some responsibilities.”
There was a pause, in which neither man moved.
“Her name is Lena,” Scrooge finally said. “Are you happy now?”
Gyro leaned across the counter conspiratorially.
“I heard she just appeared in town last night,” he said. “On Main Street, out of nowhere, right at midnight.”
Scrooge snorted. “I think you’re reading too many of those tabloids you stock for Mrs. Cabrera.”
Gyro held up his hands. “I just thought you should know what people are saying.”
“Nice to see you’re so concerned. Now are you going to have a seat or not?” Scrooge shook his head. “Imagine. Gossip in Duckburg.”
“I’m not one to repeat gossip,” Gyro said, turning to walk towards a table.
“Indeed not,” Scrooge muttered. “More often it’s you who starts it.”
As more of the town came in for breakfast, Lena was dismissed from the kitchen and sent out to fulfill waitressing duties instead.
“What can I bring you?” she said as she approached Gyro Gearloose’s table.
“Scrooge knows what I’m having,” said Gyro dismissively.
Lena kept a very straight face. “Would you like coffee with that?”
Gyro slid his mug over to Lena, allowing her to pour the coffee.
She’d barely stepped away before he began muttering to the next table over: “She has no right to speak to me like that. I smell a rat, don’t you? You know, I heard she appeared on the street last night with a motorcycle gang!”
Launchpad McQuack’s eyes widened. “Oh, wow. I’ve never crashed a motorcycle before!”
Gyro rolled his eyes. Launchpad always missed the point.
Donald waved Lena over to his table.
“Lena? Lena, these are my boys,” he said, indicating the three teenagers, who eyed her with varying levels of interest. “Huey, Dewey, and Louie. And this,” he motioned towards the older woman sitting across from them, “is Bentina Beakley, she’s an old friend of Uncle Scrooge.”
“Where do you come from, Lena?” Beakley asked.
Lena hesitated, caught off-guard by the direct question. “Paris.”
Beakley’s eyebrows rose. “Really. Your accent is more American Southwest.”
“And yours is Elizabethan England,” said Lena. “I wouldn’t mind coming from someplace else, if it’d make you happier.”
One of the boys – Louie, probably, though Lena was having a hard enough time with the names of people who weren’t identical – laughed. Beakley’s smile was much more forced.
“Mr. McDuck and I go back a very long time,” she said. “You can expect to see quite a bit of me around here.”
“Well then,” said Lena, “if you all wouldn’t mind telling me what you want for breakfast –”
“Scrooge knows what I’m having,” the voices chorused back.
“That one’s been really popular this morning,” said Lena, continuing on to the next table.
Beakley shook her head at Donald. “You should have called me first,” she said. “Before bringing her here. Your uncle doesn’t need someone like that running around underfoot.”
Donald shrugged. “What would you have had me do?”
“Send her back to wherever she came from!” said Beakley. “I know a bad influence when I see one. Who knows who raised her? Why is she here?”
“Don’t ask me!” said Donald. “Duckburg’s a place for leaving, not for coming to.”
“Tell me about it,” muttered Dewey.
Everyone who was going to be there for breakfast was already there when the door opened one more time, and a young woman entered, looking very much like she wanted to be anywhere else, or at least for her entrance to go unnoticed – though there was small chance of that, in a town like this.
“Webbigail,” said Scrooge from the counter, by means of greeting.
“Mr. McDuck,” came the reply, from a face that barely looked up from the floor as its owner hurried past.
“Miss Vanderquack,” said Gyro as she neared his table, watching her with nearly as much interest as he’d been watching Lena.
“Morning, Webby,” said Donald as Webby reached their table.
“Sheriff.” Webby held out a rolled-up bundle of fabric to Beakley. “Granny, you forgot your scarf, I thought you might need it.”
Beakley took the scarf with a stern nod.
“Are you gonna join us for a cup of coffee, Webby?” Donald asked.
“Webby doesn’t drink coffee,” said Beakley, giving Webby a look that clearly read go home, now.
Webby turned to do so – and nearly ran straight into Lena, who had just come out of the kitchen again.
“Whoa!” Lena managed to not spill the coffee pot, saving herself and the other girl from another burn.
“Excuse me,” Webby said.
“No, excuse me,” said Lena. “I’m not sure if I’m coming, going, or standing still.”
It took a few tries for them to get past each other, as they performed the dance of two people who nearly collided, each stepping in the same direction as they tried to get out of each other’s way. Finally, Lena turned to the side to let Webby past.
“Ma’am, you can sit wherever you want,” she said, with an apologetic smile.
Webby stared at her in silence, until Lena moved on again, and Webby continued on towards the front door, while Lena continued to navigate the tables and not-so-subtle whispers.
“It’s like she thinks she owns the place, and she hasn’t even been here one day!”
“Where did she even come from?”
“Scrooge doesn’t need the help. He’s gone it alone this long, hasn’t he? Nothing stops that old man.”
“Why’s she here, though? What’s she after?”
“I heard she has tattoos.”
“I heard she’s here to swindle McDuck out of his family fortune. Mark my words, as soon as she’s dug it up from wherever he’s buried it, she’ll be gone again.”
“But where’s she from?!”
“Order up!” Scrooge barked across the diner, setting plates of food up onto the counter. “Order up! Lena! Shake a leg!”
Webby stood on the porch outside the Sunchaser Grill, muttering to herself.
“Welcome to Duckburg. That’s what I should have said. Hi, I’m Webby! Welcome to Duckburg. Hi! I’m Webby. Where are you from? Why did you come here? Is your hair supposed to be pink like that, or did somebody prank you?”
She walked around the building to look in an open window, the one with the little red “For Sale” sign hanging from it, hoping for one more glimpse of the stranger, and reached it at the exact moment that Lena, fed up, called out across the crowded room:
“Hey, Mr. McDuck! Did I mention that I spent the last five years in prison? And I only got locked up in solitary three times. Imagine that!”
You could have heard a pin drop, and several forks did.
Chapter 3: Out of the Frying Pan
In which there are a few accidents.
Lena’s first few weeks in Duckburg seemed to both rush and drag at the same time. Every minute of the day, she was kept busy in the Grill – bussing tables, heating water, bringing in firewood from the back and cans from the cellar. Every night, she fell into bed, too exhausted to worry about nightmares. And every morning, noon, and evening, she was greeted by gossip and sneers, which didn’t seem to be lessening at all, though the town must be getting used to her by now. No one seemed to care whether she heard what they said about her, though they did seem to care when she snarled right back – Scrooge had already warned her to be more polite to his customers, or else – “It’s bad for business,” he’d said. “Nobody tips a back-talking waitress.”
Not that they were giving her any tips anyway, and not that Lena thought Scrooge would let her keep any tips she might make. It had become painfully clear from the way he handled the bills and the register that profit was of paramount importance to her new boss. Money was a higher priority than her comfort.
So Lena tolerated the suspicious eyes, feeling more frustration mount within her with each day. They were all asses, her regulars, and she learned their names by their insults – especially Gyro Gearloose, who never seemed to run out of new tales to tell about her. Of the entire town, only three stood out for their lack of participation in the daily shunning: Launchpad, the deputy sheriff, who seemed to not even know what gossip was, let alone how to spread it; Fenton, the boy who worked in the general store with Gyro and whom everyone was always asking how his mother was, and who actually smiled at her in a way that reached his eyes; and Webby, Beakley’s granddaughter, who appeared only occasionally at dinnertime and said nothing at all.
One morning, almost a month after her arrival in Duckburg, Lena was internally cursing the people who had dirtied the plates she was washing, and thinking that the world would be better off if Copper Creek swelled up and washed the town away, when a loud crash came from the back porch. Jolted out of her silent diatribe, Lena hurried to see the source of the commotion – and there she found Scrooge, lying on the back steps and groaning in pain, the many cans he’d been carrying up from the cellar scattered on the porch and ground around him.
“Scrooge?” Lena hurried to his side.
“Don’t touch me!” Scrooge snapped, before Lena could even think of doing so.
“What happened?” Lena asked, her eyes scanning him. One of his legs was bent under his body in an unnatural way.
“Don’t touch me!” Scrooge said again as she drew near.
“I heard you, Scrooge. But you probably have a broken leg, there.”
“What would you know about broken bones?” Scrooge snarled, trying to sit up and failing.
“More than enough,” said Lena. “Now, if you want to fight me, old man, then go ahead and fight, but we need to get a doctor to fix that!”
“I don’t want you –”
Lena cut him off. “Mr. McDuck, where’s the closest doctor?”
Scrooge hesitated, then caved.
“Prairie du Chien. Thirty-five miles.”
Lena ran back through the Grill and out the front door, thinking about what needed to be done, and with no idea how to achieve it. Even if she had a car, or keys to one, she’d never taken a driving lesson, and this was not the time to begin to learn.
For once, a spot of luck shone through the clouds, and she saw Fenton, the nice one, walking along Main Street.
“Mr. –” Damn it, she couldn’t remember his last name, it was a wonder she even knew the first. “Fenton!”
He startled as she ran towards him. “Y-Yes, Miss de Spell?”
“Lena,” she corrected without really thinking about it. “Fenton, do you know how to drive?”
“I heard she pushed Mr. McDuck down a flight of stairs,” Gyro said later to anyone who would listen. “At least, that’s what they say.”
That evening, Beakley and Donald converged in Scrooge’s bedroom, where he sat upright on the bed, his leg wrapped in a cast and propped up.
“Now will you tell us what happened here, Mr. McDuck?” said Beakley.
“As I’ve said three times already,” said Scrooge, “I was on my way up the back stairs, struggling with that damn door, and my hip gave out, that’s all.”
Beakley frowned. “It seems to me that you had better close the Grill for a while, and send that girl on her way.”
Scrooge looked aghast at the thought. “The Sunchasher hasn’t been closed one day since it last flew! And ‘that girl’ is the one who got me to the doctor.”
“I don’t want to be responsible for –”
“Who asked you to be responsible? You’re not my bodyguard anymore, Bentina; I haven’t needed one for years. Until I forget my name’s Scrooge McDuck, I’ll make my own decisions.” Scrooge crossed his arms. “Now, I won’t be laid up here forever. Until then, Lena will have to manage things.”
“She can’t just take over this place alone,” Donald finally spoke up. “She’s still fresh out of prison. And from what little she’s said, and what less is in her file, she never had a job before this.”
“She won’t be alone,” Beakley said, looking thoughtful. “I’ll have Webby here to handle the cash. She’ll be safe enough with Scrooge McDuck in earshot. That way, we’ll have Lena stay in the kitchen.”
“Now, if that’s settled, and if you two don’t mind,” Scrooge said, grabbing a thick cane and sliding his legs to the floor, “I’m going to the toilet. And I think I can manage that without help from either of you!”
Besides Scrooge, nobody thought that having Lena run the grill was a good idea – least of all Lena herself. She’d hardly ever eaten anything besides fast food as a child, and never once cooked a meal that didn’t solely involve things found in cans. But worrying wouldn’t feed the customers, so she found a dusty old cookbook in a cupboard, sent Webby out to collect orders – “Scrooge knows what I’m having” wouldn’t be good enough today – and did her best to copy what she’d seen Scrooge do the past weeks’ worth of mornings.
“Order up!” she called to Webby as she organized the first plate.
Webby came up to the counter and hesitated, not taking the plate. “What’s this?”
“Eggs over easy, hash browns, and bacon,” said Lena over her shoulder, trying to figure out if she’d let the oatmeal boil too long or not long enough, and hoping that the second batch of breakfast biscuits wouldn’t burn.
“Oh,” said Webby.
“Why? What’s the matter?”
“Um. Which is the bacon?”
Lena looked. She honestly wasn’t sure. Her and Webby’s eyes met with equal expressions of helplessness.
Pancake batter wasn’t supposed to be this lumpy, was it? And though all the bacon was burnt, the sausage seemed still raw, and who even knew what was happening with the coffee cake. And still the orders came in, for some reason.
Special deal at the Sunchaser this morning – every meal served with a side of indigestion.
“Lena,” Webby’s voice at the doorway brought Lena out of her train of thought. “Gyro sent his oatmeal back.”
“Why?” Lena said, half afraid of the answer, and half beyond caring – it wasn’t like she’d know how to fix whatever was wrong.
“It’s a little thick,” Webby said. “He could get the spoon in, but he can’t get it back out.”
Lena put her hands over her eyes, leaving streaks of flour on her forehead and bits of raw egg in the pink lock of her hair. It was probably illegal, the crimes she was committing to the good name of breakfast. She was definitely going back to prison.
Nobody stayed in the diner for very long that morning, and Lena eventually stumbled out into the abandoned dining room.
“So,” she said to Webby, who was crunching numbers at the register, “you think I’m losing Scrooge’s customers?”
“Oh, they’ll come back, don’t worry,” Webby said.
“Pretty loyal, huh?”
“There’s nowhere else to eat.”
Lena looked across the counter, at the sink full of dirty dishes, most of which were still covered in what barely passed for food, and sighed.
Lunch and dinner went no better, and Lena gratefully welcomed sunset. The people of Duckburg had all gone home, Webby included, and the kitchen was as clean as she had the energy to make it, so Lena dragged herself up the stairs.
“Lena,” Scrooge said as she passed his open door. He was sitting on the bed, a book open on his lap.
“Yes, Mr. McDuck?”
“Who exactly was it that taught you how to cook?”
Lena thought about it. “The devil, I guess.”
Scrooge almost smiled, and the look encouraged Lena to speak again.
“I know I’m making a mess of things down there,” she said.
“If it wasn’t the food, they’d find something else to complain about,” said Scrooge.
Lena nodded. “Right. Goodnight, then.”
She started to turn away.
“Lena,” Scrooge said again. “There, ah… There might be one last thing that still needs doing.”
“I’d do it myself, but I can’t with this leg.”
Scrooge hesitated, and then plowed on through the sentences: “Get a loaf of bread from the kitchen. Wrap it up in a towel, and set it out back by the stump. Take a couple vegetable cans out with it, too. Put them on top of the stump, so no one trips on it and gets hurt. Do you think you can do that?”
Lena nodded slowly. “Sure. I got it… Do you want me to turn out your light?”
“No. Just go do as I told you.”
Lena set the bread and cans on the old tree stump by the woodpile. Of course she was curious why – but Scrooge hadn’t seemed to want to ask her to do it at all, let alone to answer her questions.
As she straightened, a sudden movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she looked out sharply into the trees.
There was no reply. Lena shivered, and not just because of the snow starting to leak through her shoes.
“Is somebody there?” she said again.
There was no reply, besides the wind whispering in the trees and causing shadows to dance in the light of the full moon on the snow. All the same, Lena carefully backed away from the stump, up the stairs to the porch, and retreated inside. She knew better than to see shadows as simply harmless.
Chapter 4: When Hope Goes
In which Lena and Webby finally have a conversation.
The second day of Sunchaser Grill: Lena Edition was as bad as the first, and so was the third. On the fourth day, Webby took one final look at the kitchen from across the counter, and stepped around it, taking a frying pan out of Lena’s hands.
“The oatmeal’s done,” she said, “take it off the heat now. And stir the flour in more before you start ladling those pancakes.”
Lena was surprised, but did as she was told.
It quickly became clear that Webby knew her way around a kitchen – and the results were clear on the plates they began to send out into the diner. For a few minutes, Lena thought the grumbling of the patrons seemed to actually stop for a while as they ate.
“Don’t tell Granny,” Webby whispered as they cleaned up afterwards.
“Tell her what?” said Lena.
“That I’m – Oh! I get it.”
“Honestly,” Lena said, bringing her plate to the sink – it was a week or so later, and Webby had made the two of them breakfast while Lena brought out the supplies for the day. “You cook better than Scrooge does.”
Webby smiled at her hands. “That can’t be true.”
“It is! You’ve been saving my butt in here.” She pointed at the empty plate. “You make a plate of just eggs into the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
“Nah, you just don’t know any better,” said Webby. “I bet anything would taste good after all you’ve had for years is prison –”
She stopped herself, looking horrified at her own voice.
“I – I’m sorry, Miss de Spell. I shouldn’t – I just say any stupid thing that pops into my head, I know, I shouldn’t have said anything, I don’t even know why I’m still talking right now, or why I’m talking about why I’m still talking, I –”
“It’s alright.” Lena stepped around the counter to sit in one of the diner chairs. “I haven’t exactly made a secret of where I’ve been, now have I? And, again, just Lena is fine.”
“Lena. Right. Anyway, cooking’s not that hard. Soon enough you won’t need my help anymore.”
“If you turn out to be as good at teaching as you are at cooking, then I bet so.” Lena leaned back against the counter, looking out at the empty tables and chairs, awaiting their customers. “Though I could be a gourmet chef and the people here would still find something snide to say about me.”
“They’ll warm up to you,” Webby said, but she didn’t sound like she believed it.
“Sure. Around the same time this winter finally warms up.” Another three inches of snow had fallen the previous night, and Lena had been woken up that morning by Donald cursing as much as he was shoveling.
“That’ll happen, too. It always does.” Webby came around the counter to sit a few chairs over from Lena. “They didn’t used to be like this, though. Everyone here got along a lot better when I was little. But that was back when they first built the Grill.”
Lena shot her a teasing look. “You’re that old? I could’ve sworn this place was as ancient as Scrooge.”
Webby giggled. “No, it just looks like that ’cause it’s a hodgepodge, and nobody’s whitewashed the fences or fixed the sidewalk out front in years. Mr. McDuck wasn’t always a diner-cook, you know.”
“Oh? What was he?”
“Only the greatest adventurer in the world!”
Lena almost laughed. “Really! Grumpy old Scrooge?”
“Really!” Webby insisted. “I grew up on the stories – Granny was his partner and bodyguard, back in those days, so she knows everything about him. They’d fly all over the world, finding ancient treasures and battling monsters, solving mysteries and rewriting history! And Donald went, too. He’s Scrooge’s nephew.”
“I knew that much,” said Lena. “Does this all have to do with the red plane on the sign out front?”
“Yep. That’s the Sunchaser – direct flights from here to anywhere in the world!” There was a dreamy expression on Webby’s face. “They used it for years, crashed it on every continent, until it was all falling apart and couldn’t take off again. Scrooge doesn’t like to let anything go to waste, though, so he used the parts to help build the Grill.”
“So that is a propeller in the corner over there,” said Lena. “Wow, that’s fun to imagine – Scrooge McDuck and Company escaping this sleepy little town for the thrills of the outside world.”
“But Duckburg wasn’t nearly this quiet back then, either,” Webby said. “I remember some of that – people flocking here to be a part of Mr. McDuck’s adventures, or to try to steal the treasures he’d found. The sheriff department had a lot of trouble with Ma Beagle’s gang when I was, like, three. Mr. Gearloose had all kinds of contraptions set up everywhere, security robots and traps – they’re all gone now, though, we haven’t needed them in years.”
Lena just shook her head. It was hard to picture tiny snow-covered Main Street, without a single person so much as sitting on a porch swing, as once buzzing with robots and treasure hunters.
“When I was little –” Webby paused, blushing.
“No, it’s silly.”
“I won’t tell.”
“Okay… When I was little, I always hoped they’d start adventuring again, so that I could go with them!” Webby grinned at the memories. “Granny’d never allow it, it’d be too dangerous. But she’s taught me some self-defense; I bet I could take on an adventure or two.”
Lena grinned. “I bet you could.”
“And sometimes I think – I think I’d like to learn to be a pilot, you know? Get out there, fly high above the world, and see it for myself.” Webby’s eyes were on the ceiling. “I’ve hardly even set foot outside Duckburg, let alone left the state.”
“Hm.” Lena crossed her legs and uncrossed them again. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one.” Webby looked at Lena. “Why?”
“You could totally do it!” said Lena. “Go to flight school, get an aviation degree, or whatever it is you gotta do – you’re more than old enough to apply for something like that.”
Webby shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Oh, I don’t know…”
Lena raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess, Granny wouldn’t allow it?”
“No. I mean, it’s not just that, it’s… It just wouldn’t end well, that’s all. The flying thing.”
“How do you know?”
Webby was silent for a long moment.
“I don’t mean to pry,” said Lena.
“Oh, no, you’re fine. It’s just… nobody talks about it.”
Webby took a deep breath, looked back at the staircase, and let it out again.
“Mr. McDuck had a niece,” she said in a soft voice. “Donald’s twin sister, Della Duck. She was just as brave as Scrooge was, back in the day – tough, and smart, and sharp. Everybody loved her. All I remember is that she was tall – but that might just be because I was so short.
“I still am so short,” she added, with a little laugh. “Della was the pilot on all of their adventures. And when they were here at home, you never saw one without the other, Della and Donald, the Duck Twins. Everyone looked up to them almost as much as we looked up to Scrooge. They were the future, you know? Things had been great up till then, and they were gonna take us to even greater heights than before.”
She paused, caught up in the memories. Lena let the silence stretch.
“They almost retired,” Webby finally continued. “That’s how Granny tells it, at least. Scrooge turned the plane into the Grill, and Donald was filling in as sheriff by that point, and Della, well, she had eggs.”
“Donald’s boys,” said Lena.
Webby nodded. “Della wasn’t ready to call it quits, though. They’d been just about everywhere in the world, seen everything, discovered it all. But Della had bigger plans than Earth, bigger than the sky. She turned her eyes towards outer space.
“Donald was against it. Not with the boys on the way. I heard them arguing, once, out on the street. It was so strange to see them like that. Donald was so smiley otherwise, whenever I saw him.”
Lena did her best to suspend her disbelief. Perhaps the sheriff was good with children.
“The details are a bit shaky after that,” said Webby. “Mr. McDuck’s never told anyone exactly what happened. But we all saw the rocket go up… and after a few days, it was clear Della wasn’t coming back. Things were never the same after that. There were no more adventures, no more treasure. Donald took the eggs, and he barely spoke to his uncle for the next ten years. And everyone else just got… mean.”
“Wow.” Lena shook her head, looking around the Grill again. “With a history like that, I’m surprised Scrooge still keeps this old place.”
“It’s not for lack of trying.” Webby nodded at the far window, the one with the “For Sale” sign. “Mr. McDuck’s had the Grill up for sale for a while now. Five, six years, maybe? Granny’s tried to help him find a buyer, but nobody’s bitten. I heard him tell Granny once he ‘couldn’t unload this grill if it was the booby prize in the Lions Club raffle!’”
She said that last part in so good an imitation of Scrooge’s accent that Lena couldn’t help but laugh as she stood and stretched, a bit stiff from sitting in the tall chair.
“Raffle…” Lena paused, the idea taking root in her brain and sticking there. “…well why doesn’t he?”
Webby stood, too. “Why doesn’t he what?”
“Raffle it off! People do that kind of thing all the time – ten dollars for a chance at a TV set, or something. To win a whole grill, though – you could ask for even more, don’t you think?”
Webby nodded, her eyes lighting up at the thought.
Just then Scrooge’s voice came shouting down from upstairs: “Lena! Webby! I don’t smell coffee brewing!”
Lena rolled her eyes. “Well, the fall didn’t hurt his nose.”
“I heard that.”
Webby and Lena’s eyes met with identical expressions of a mixture of guilt and terror. Then they both grinned, and laughed, and hurried back into the kitchen to start the day.
Chapter 5: Ice and Snow
In which there is too much winter.
Time marched forward, as it was wont to do, but not nearly quickly enough for the people of Duckburg, Wisconsin, united in their frustration with winter. The more superstitious cursed the groundhog and piled blankets onto their beds. The more practical kept the woodpiles high and as dry as they could – no easy feat, as wet snow still fell almost daily in February and March.
Webby stood at the base of the stairs, spotting Scrooge as he worked his way into the diner proper on crutches, doing her best not to act like she was too concerned about him falling again.
“Feel good to get out of your room?” she asked as Scrooge lowered himself onto one of the tall diner chairs.
“I could do without those stairs,” Scrooge grumbled, leaning the crutches against the counter. “In fact, I could do without this entire Grill.”
Webby bit her lip. “Well, Mr. McDuck… with the real estate market how it is, you might…”
She lost courage midway through the sentence and stopped. But Scrooge would have none of that. “I might what?” he said.
“You might want to run a contest to raffle the place off,” Webby said, very quickly.
Scrooge raised an eyebrow incredulously. “A contest?”
“Oh, sure,” said Webby. “You know, like, ‘send in a hundred dollars for a chance to win the Sunchaser Grill!’”
Scrooge barked a bitter laugh. “Win?! What kind of nonsense is that?”
Webby deflated; it did sound rather stupid saying it out loud. “Nothing…” she mumbled.
Scrooge shook his head. “That stove isn’t going to light itself, Webbigail.”
Not all of the houses in Duckburg even had electricity, let alone landline phones. Those that did lost their service one night when an ice storm knocked down the electrical lines. The people of Duckburg woke up to a world so gray with clouds and mushy snow that the drab color seemed to leak into their skin, too.
Gyro sat over his morning coffee drawing diagrams on napkins of water pipes that wouldn’t burst when they froze, and most likely wouldn’t turn evil and take over the town – but the doodles all ended up in the trash, anyway.
Donald was overheard saying that if winter went on any longer, he’d take the boys and move south, ready or not.
The boys set up camp on top of the schoolhouse, raining icy snowballs down on whoever was gutsy enough to walk by.
Lena was filling bottles of ketchup in the dining room when Scrooge sat down at the table across from her.
“Yes, Mr. McDuck?”
“I understand you and Webby have been talking about some kind of raffle contest thing.”
From the kitchen, Webby caught Lena’s eye across the counter, shaking her head emphatically.
“We were just talking,” said Lena.
“Well, talk now,” said Scrooge.
Lena hesitated. “Well, we thought you could ask people to send you an essay about why they want the Sunchaser.”
“An essay?” said Scrooge. Webby leaned against the counter to listen more closely.
“Sure,” said Lena. “You might get a thousand entries, or more. Then you’d pick the one you like best and give the Grill to whoever wrote it.”
Scrooge scoffed. “I can’t imagine there’d be fifty people who’d want this place, let alone a thousand. Better watch that pot, Webby! She’s about ready to boil over!”
That last part he said without even turning around to look at the kitchen, leaving Webby gaping at the guilty pot in astonishment.
“Do you show up on time for work every day?”
“Do you tell your employer where you go at night?”
“Do you have contact with anyone you knew in prison?”
Donald rubbed his eyes and set down the list of questions, looking across his desk at the sullen parolee sitting there with her eyes on the frosted-over window.
“Is there anything going on that you want to talk about, anything at all?” he said.
Honestly, she was even worse than the boys.
“Where’s Lena?” Scrooge said, glancing around the empty diner.
“She went to Dodgeville for supplies,” Webby called over from the kitchen, where she was scrubbing out a pot. “I think she said she’d ask Fenton to give her a ride.”
Scrooge nodded. “Good. Come here for a moment.”
Webby came out of the kitchen to sit at the counter next to Scrooge, wiping her hands dry on her apron.
“Webbigail,” said Scrooge, “what do you really think about this raffle contest notion?”
Webby shrugged. “Maybe you should ask Granny about it.”
“When I want your grandmother’s opinion about something, I’ll ask her,” said Scrooge. “Right now, I’m asking you.”
“Well, then…” Webby hesitated. “If you’re asking me… I’d say why not?”
Scrooge nodded. “That’s what I’ve been thinking, too. Do you suppose you could see to all the details for me?”
Scrooge smacked the counter with a fist. “Yes or no, lass?”
“Yes,” said Webby, and then she put her hand over her mouth, like she couldn’t believe what it had just done to her.
Scrooge didn’t seem to notice. “Then it’s settled. Just make sure they know it’s for cash only. I don’t want any trouble with out-of-state checks.”
Once a month – every full moon, it seemed – Scrooge had Lena go out back and leave food at the tree stump. It was always gone by morning, though once or twice the towel she’d wrapped the loaf of bread in was left behind, in a little heap on the ground. For all the snow, Lena never saw any footprints coming to or from the stump, except her own and the occasional rabbit’s.
Chapter 6: The Colors of Paradise
In which Lena and Webby post an ad.
And so the Earth spun around the sun and brought them into April, and Copper Creek melted at last. A ladybug, most welcome harbinger of spring, landed on the opposite side of kitchen window’s glass, and Lena watched it crawl around and stretch its wings as Webby, sitting at the counter, read aloud from a little notebook:
“Small diner, real fixer-upper, two story house attached, Main Street location, good potential…” Webby looked up at Lena. “How does that sound?”
Lena hesitated. Webby’s face fell.
“Awful, huh?” she said, letting her pencil fall from her fingers to the counter.
“It’s okay, I guess,” said Lena, coming over to lean against the side of the counter opposite Webby. “But if I was going to gamble a hundred dollars, I’d want it to be someplace, you know, special. Besides, they aren’t just getting the Sunchaser – they’ll get Duckburg, too.”
“There’s nothing very special about Duckburg,” said Webby. “Not anymore, at least.”
Lena pursed her lips thoughtfully. “We just have to help them picture it right. Something like… something about how you can look out the window and see how big the world is, but at the same time it’s so small that the post office is in the general store, and Main Street’s the only street there is, and it runs right by your front door.”
She shook her head, internally laughing a little at herself. “I dunno.”
“No, no, I like that!” Webby said, making some notes on the notepad. “Keep going. What else?”
Lena thought about it. “You could say that if you ever feel like running away, all you gotta do is step outside your back door, where the trees go on forever… And you don’t have to worry if your cooking stinks, because people will keep coming back anyway –”
“– because the Sunchaser’s the only grill in town!” Webby said along with her, laughing. “Let’s call it ‘loyal customers.’ They’re your neighbors, who eat here – people that you know.”
“And when summer turns to autumn, the forest is a thing of beauty – like the colors of paradise came down to earth.” Lena reached into her back pocket and took out the folded piece of paper, passing it to Webby so that she could see the picture. “That might be too flowery, but…”
“No, I get it! You’re like a poet, Lena,” said Webby, looking at the colorful leaves in the travel book photograph. “And that’s really how it is. In the morning, when the hickories turn golden, and sunlight burns the maples red as fire…”
“Write that down, write that down!” Lena said, jumping to her feet. “Just picture it – you look out from your front porch, as the sun sets at the end of another day here in Duckburg, and all at once it hits you – you’re here to stay, because you have roots here that reach so deep into the earth that nothing and nobody can tear them out from under you!”
She paused, a bit breathless, and collected herself.
“Send a hundred dollars, cash only, and an essay about why you want this diner to Scrooge McDuck, care of the Sunchaser Grill, in Duckburg, Wisconsin,” she finished, coming over to sit down next to Webby again. “Now. How does that sound?”
Webby grinned at her, squeezing the notepad in her hands. “I think we’ve got it.”
Lena and Webby took a break between after-lunch clean-up and pre-dinner prep, heading across town. Though the walk was short, as they reached the general store, Lena was sweating – the shirt she was wearing, the same striped one she’d worn under her jacket the first night she’d arrived in Duckburg, was a little too heavy now for the early spring sun.
A little bell rang as they came in through the door, and Fenton looked up from the counter. There was no sign of Gyro, thankfully – Lena remembered he’d been complaining of a cold at lunch the past few days; maybe he was taking the day off.
“Good afternoon!” Fenton greeted them. “It’s rare to see both of you here at once!”
“The Grill can last without us for a little while, don’t you think?” said Lena.
“How’s your mother doing, Mr. Crackshell-Cabrera?” said Webby.
“Well enough,” Fenton replied, “same as always.”
“I haven’t met her yet,” said Lena. “You could bring her with you to the Sunchaser sometime.”
Fenton blinked in a fidgety sort of way. “Oh, um, thank you, but no, we probably won’t… M’ma doesn’t leave the house much. Or ever.”
Lena looked over at Webby for some guidance, but the other girl’s eyes were on the floor, unhelpfully.
“I can mind my own business, if there’s something I shouldn’t be prying about here,” Lena said.
“Oh, no, it’s fine, everyone else knows, you might as well, too, now that you’ve been here a while.”
Fenton took a breath and continued.
“M’ma used to be the sheriff here, years ago – back when the Sunchaser was a plane, did you know that? Ah, yes, I see you do. Anyway, back then the crime rate in Duckburg was a lot higher – not because of poor policing, no, M’ma kept a tight grip on the town when she was Officer Cabrera, the hand of justice here, locking up and turning back anyone who tried to hurt our citizens!”
He grinned with pride, but his expression fell again just as quickly.
“I was at university when it happened, just starting my senior year – I’d combined a bunch of different science majors together into one multidisciplinary degree program, it was a lot of fun – that’s when I got the call from the hospital. M’ma had had a run-in with Ma Beagle’s gang, and ended up hurt. Really hurt. She lived, gracias a Dios, but she had to retire early, and I dropped out of school and came home to help. The transition’s been… difficult, I guess you would say? For her, I mean, I’m fine, I’m not doing what I thought fifteen years ago I’d be doing now, but it is what it is.
“But M’ma loved her work. She loved protecting Duckburg. Not being able to do that anymore… She watches a lot of TV. Mostly Patos reruns. And she reads magazines, stuff about people and places and scandals far away from here. So, you know. She keeps busy.”
Fenton stopped talking, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I’m sorry,” was all that Lena could think of to say.
Fenton shrugged. “Yes, well, it is what it is. I wish there was something more I could do than just, be here for her, but then, don’t we all want to be a little more helpful? I’m good at fixing things, generally speaking, I took a lot of robotics courses in school, but this… Oh, but you didn’t come here to hear my life story. How can I help you?”
“Oh, right.” Lena beckoned to Webby, who held out the notepad.
“Scrooge is trying something new, to sell the Grill,” said Webby. “A raffle contest.”
“A raffle, you say?” Fenton took the notepad, eyes quickly scanning the handwriting.
“A hundred dollars and an essay for an entry,” said Webby. “And we don’t know anything about putting ads in the paper, but we thought you might, since you sell them.”
“I think I know who to call,” said Fenton. “You just leave it to me!”
“Make sure it gets into as many newspapers as you can,” said Lena. “All over the country, if possible. And if your nosy boss doesn’t find out about it, all the better.”
Fenton chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
When Lena got back to her little bedroom above the Grill that night, she found a pile of folded-up clothing on the foot of the bed – adult women’s, light shirts and shorts. On top of the pile was a note, in Scrooge’s handwritten scrawl: Dress more appropriately for the weather, lass.
Lena moved the clothes from the bed to the dresser, touched by the gesture, but uncertain how to feel about wearing what were undoubtedly Della Duck’s clothes.
Chapter 7: This Wide Woods
In which grumpy people are grumpy.
“Mr. McDuck! Scrooge McDuck, you had better be home!”
“No need to shout,” Scrooge muttered, not looking up from the checkbook he was working on as Beakley marched in through the front door.
She dropped a stack of newspapers on the table in front of him. “What, may I ask, is this all about?”
Scrooge blinked at the papers. “Well it seems you have news from all across the continent there. Keeping well informed as always, eh, 22?”
Beakley flipped through the papers, pointing at the prominent ads. “Here – ‘Win a hometown grill.’ ‘Enter the Sunchaser raffle.’ Tell me this is some kind of a joke.”
“It does sound rather funny, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, yes, quite witty. Soon you’ll have the whole country laughing at you.” Beakley shook her head. “Would you mind clueing me in to your thought process, staking what’s left of your reputation on a scheme like this?”
Scrooge shrugged. “To tell you the truth, the thoughts were all Lena’s and Webbigail’s.”
Beakley stared at him. “Lena… and Webby…”
“The Sunchaser’s been on the market for the better part of a decade, Bentina,” said Scrooge. “I thought it might be a good time to try something new. Who knows? Perhaps it’ll turn out a person or two will think the Grill is worth a dent in their pocket.”
“Perhaps.” Beakley shook her head. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Don’t I always?”
“Well, if you ask me – which you haven’t – you’ve been giving that de Spell girl more free reign than might be smart lately. I don’t trust her, or any ideas she’s had even a part in thinking up.”
“You’re right,” said Scrooge, pulling the checkbook out from under the stack of newspapers and returning his attention to it. “I haven’t asked you.”
Lena came down the stairs into the diner, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She paused on the bottom step. Usually everything was quiet here at this time of can-you-even-really-call-this-morning, but there was clearly someone already up and working in the kitchen.
“Webby?” she called ahead as she came around the counter. “What are you doing here?”
“Just getting a head start on the baking,” Webby said, indicating the bowl of dough she was mixing.
Lena stifled a yawn. “But it’s so early.”
“It is, I know, I just – I think it’s better if I’m not home right now.”
Lena frowned. “What’s wrong?”
Webby set the bowl on the counter. “Granny found out about the raffle. She’s not happy.”
“She’s not giving you trouble about it, is she?” Lena said, taking a step closer to Webby.
“No, not really, not more than – not really.” Webby wiped her hands on her apron, leaving streaks of flour behind. “She’s just worried it won’t work, or that it’ll go wrong in some awful way. She’s trying to take care of everyone, keep us safe. That’s what she does. Me, Mr. McDuck –”
“So what?” Lena sat up on the countertop. “You’re both adults, right? What right does she have to be mad, if Scrooge does what he wants with his property, and if you decide to help him?”
“She’s not mad, she just –”
“– just makes you feel like you’d rather be up at five a.m. making bread in this cluttered little kitchen than at home in your nice, comfy bed?” Lena said, waving at the bowl of dough for emphasis.
“That’s not fair,” said Webby. “There are other reasons why I like being here!”
“Yeah? Like what?”
Webby hesitated, her white cheeks tinting with pink. “Like –”
The front door swung open sharply. “Miss de Spell, I need to see –” Donald stopped, seeing that Lena wasn’t the only one in the kitchen. “Oh, hi Webby.”
Lena frowned, turning her head away. Damn, she was in for it now.
“Morning, Donald,” Webby said, looking between Donald and Lena with a mixture of curiosity and relief at the interruption. “I, uh, I suppose you two have business?”
“We can take it outside.” Donald beckoned at Lena with the hand holding the file folder. “Miss de Spell?”
“Lena,” she muttered under her breath, but she slid down from the counter and followed the sheriff to the back porch.
Donald wasted no time: “You didn’t show up for our parole session last night.”
“Look,” Lena said, still a bit snippy from the previous argument, “why don’t you just leave me a list of all your stupid questions and I’ll answer them when I have the time.”
Donald held up his hands in a don’t-shoot gesture. “Hey. It’s my job, and I gotta do it.”
“Yes, I show up for work every day.” Lena crossed her arms. “Yes, I tell my employer where I go at night. No, I don’t have contact with anyone I knew in prison. Yes, I’m getting along just fine at my job. You can ask anybody in town and they’ll be more than happy to tell you exactly what they think of me!”
She sat down on the back porch stairs with a huff, looking out across the backyard, past the stump and to the trees.
“Okay, okay…” Donald closed the folder, setting it down as he sat on the stairs next to Lena – with enough space between them for comfort. “Forget about the list. Let’s just talk.”
“Without that list, there isn’t much for us to talk about, now is there?”
Donald shrugged. “You’re right.”
They sat there in silence for a bit.
“I never wanted this job,” Donald finally said, speaking more to the trees ahead of him than to Lena. “I still don’t. I only took it as a favor to Mrs. Cabrera – Fenton’s mom. She was so worried that people would stop caring, that something big and bad from out there would swoop in and break past our defenses… She was right and wrong. People don’t care, that’s true. But it’s not the outside world that hurt us.”
“Why don’t you quit, then?” Lena said. “If you hate your job so much.”
“Nobody else wants it,” said Donald. “I can’t just leave Duckburg without a sheriff. That wouldn’t be right. I am trying to get out. I’ve got Launchpad as my deputy now. I’ll have him trained up and ready to take the job soon enough.”
Lena snorted. “Right.”
“I’ve been here what, four, five months? And you haven’t once even let him drive the sheriff car.”
“He’ll pass his driving test, one of these days,” Donald insisted. “Soon as he does, I’m taking the boys and getting the heck out of this town.”
“Where will you go?”
Donald leaned in conspiratorially.
“I’ve been working on a boat,” he said. “In the backyard. And saving up to have her shipped out to Cape Suzette, when she’s ready. When I’ve got everything settled here, the boys and I are going to sea, as a family.” He paused, glancing downward for a moment. “I just hope we can go before the boys grow up and leave on their own. A few more years, and I won’t be able to tell them what to do anymore. Then who knows if I’ll ever see them again.”
“You don’t think they’ll stay? Here near your uncle?”
“They hate it here.” Donald looked out toward the trees again. “We all do. It’s safe, but… there are too many bad memories here, things you can’t help but get angry about.”
Lena thought for a moment. “I can’t really imagine it. Life out at sea, with nothing on the horizon but the sky, no houses or trees anywhere in sight…”
Donald raised his eyebrows. “Weren’t you born on the coast?”
“Is that what my file says?” Lena started picking at a hangnail on one of her thumbs. “I don’t remember, if so. I don’t really remember anything about where I started. They were already passing me around when I was two or three.” She nodded at the folder on the porch next to Donald. “‘Parents deceased.’ I remember cities, and cramped little houses. Buses with the social workers, and planes without them. Six months was about the longest I’d ever been anywhere, before the prison kept me longer. I’m from everywhere as much as nowhere. You think you want a wandering life for you and your boys, Sheriff?”
“It’s better than life here,” said Donald, waving a hand at the trees. “No one’s going anywhere, here. We’re all trapped under these branches. Held down to the ground like these stupid old trees. I want the boys out in the sunlight, not stuck in the shade.”
“I don’t mind the shade,” said Lena. “You can’t see the shadows, when you’re safe in the dark. If this was my home, I’d spend all the time I could in the shade. Whenever I felt angry, or scared, I’d go walking under the trees. Breathing them in. Imagining myself like them – with good, strong roots that go deep in the earth, reaching the water, holding me steady and firm.”
She caught herself, and laughed a little in a self-deprecating way.
“That’s what I’d do, anyway,” she said. “What do you do? When you’re stuck with the memories, and you can’t help but be angry at everything and everyone, even yourself? Especially yourself.”
Donald blinked, and was silent for a moment. “I think about the people I care about,” he finally said. “They’re why I’m doing what I’m doing. They’re why I’m going to do everything I do for the rest of my life. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what makes me strong, and brave, when I have to be.”
“Hm.” Lena studied her hands. “Well, I don’t know much about dads, but I think you might be a good one. Even if you are more than half the grump that Scrooge is.”
Donald laughed, and it sounded more genuine than Lena had expected it to.
“I’m no dad,” he said. “I’m just an uncle.”
“A good uncle, then.” Lena stood up. “I’d better get inside before the breakfast rush; wizard that she is in the kitchen, Webby still needs my help. Parole session over?”
“I think that’ll do for now,” said Donald.
Lena turned and walked back into the Grill, leaving Donald alone on the back porch. He sat there alone for a while yet, watching the trees, unsure exactly why he’d said all those things to this girl from “everywhere as much as nowhere,” and not entirely sure what to make of all the things she’d said to him in return.
Chapter 8: Forgotten Lullaby
In which the first letter arrives.
“Is this what I think it is?” Lena said of the extra dollar bill held carefully, cautiously between her fingers.
“Your first tip!” Webby grinned at her across the register. “Are you gonna spend it on something nice?”
“Well, Scrooge didn’t say I couldn’t keep it…” Lena glanced back towards the kitchen, where Scrooge had his head in a cabinet, organizing cleaned pans. She passed the dollar to Webby. “Better add it to the total, just to be safe.”
“I wouldn’t tattle,” Webby said, but she took the dollar anyway and added it to the till. “That came from the sheriff’s table, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, one of the boys set it there as he left.” Lena went back to wiping down the tables. “Which one wears the red hat again?”
“Huey.” Webby hummed thoughtfully. “I’m not surprised, you know, I think he’s got a bit of a crush on you.”
Lena forced a laugh. “Oof. That’s creepy territory, Webs. He’s what, twelve?”
“Still creepy.” Lena moved on to the next table, tightening her grip on the rag to keep her hand from shaking. “Even if I had my eye on boys, I’m no cradle-robber.”
“Whatever you say,” said Webby, cheerfully counting coins, “but it doesn’t take much to imagine you taking good care of someone, someday. Holding them at night, keeping them safe –”
“I don’t need anyone depending on me!”
Webby looked up from the register. Lena was rigid, bent over the table, one hand gripping the edge of it so tightly that the bone was showing through the skin of her knuckles.
“Lena, I –”
Lena turned her head towards Webby. Though her voice had come out hot and angry, Webby saw cold fear in her eyes instead.
“No one,” Lena said again, intensely. “Especially not a child, understand?”
Webby opened her mouth, and closed it again, wondering if she should apologize for something. But then the tension leaked out of Lena’s body, and she leaned against the table, covering her eyes with her hands.
“Oh, shit, Webby… I am so sorry. I didn’t… I shouldn’t snap at you. You’ve been so good to me; you don’t deserve that. I’m sorry.”
Webby shrugged. “I don’t care what you did.”
Lena lowered her hands. “You should.”
“But I don’t.”
Scrooge came out of the kitchen then. “Aren’t you girls finished yet?” he said, shaking his head as both of them jumped back to their tasks. “Too slow to catch a cold.”
There were footsteps on the front stairs, and then the door opened. Scrooge half-turned his head to look.
“Here comes the town crier,” he muttered, and then more loudly, “Grill’s not open, Gyro.”
“I know what time you close.” Gyro held up an envelope. “A letter came for you this morning.”
Lena and Webby were both doing a very bad job of pretending to work and not listen.
“Did it, now?” said Scrooge, casually. “And did it take longer than usual to steam it open?”
Gyro didn’t even grace the comment with a fake laugh, instead adjusting his glasses and reading from the front of the envelope: “Scrooge McDuck, care of the Sunchaser Grill…” He looked at Scrooge over the top of his glasses. “Who do you know in Philadelphia?”
“I’m sure I have no idea.” Scrooge plucked the letter out of Gyro’s hands and leaned against the counter.
Gyro stared at him, waiting.
“I don’t think I’ll open it just yet,” said Scrooge.
Gyro turned and shoved his way out the door in a huff.
As the door swung shut again behind him, Scrooge held out the envelope. “Here, Webby, you open it.”
Lena and Webby rushed to gather around the counter. Webby carefully tore open the envelope, squealing a little as she revealed a folded piece of paper and five twenty-dollar bills.
“One hundred dollars!” she exclaimed, shaking open the paper to read it aloud: “‘Dear Mr. McDuck, I saw the article about your contest last night when I couldn’t sleep. I got sick of watching TV, so I picked up the paper. The reason I couldn’t sleep is because my family is falling apart.’”
Webby paused, glanced over the sentence one more time, and continued.
“‘My wife walked out last year and left me with our two high-school boys. I don’t think her leaving us was all my fault, but they blame me for it anyway. If I don’t do something soon, I’m afraid I may lose my sons, too. Maybe if I could take us all off to someplace like yours in Duckburg, that won’t happen.’”
Webby looked up from the letter. Lena’s eyes were on her hands on the counter. Scrooge sniffed dismissively.
“If they’re all going to sound like that, to hell with it,” he said, taking the envelope, essay, and money out of Webby’s hands. “You can go home now, Webbigail. We’re done here.”
“Granny’ll be waiting anyway,” said Webby, taking her jacket from the hook near the door. She paused there, looking back at Lena. “Goodnight, then.”
“’Night, Webs,” said Lena.
Webby left, the door shutting quietly behind her.
Scrooge took a towel from behind the counter and passed it to Lena. “Make sure you wrap that loaf up good,” he said. “I gotta get off this leg.”
“Still pretty tender, huh?”
“Sore enough, considering how that doctor keeps telling me how good it’s healing,” Scrooge said, heading for the stairs.
Scrooge stopped at the base of the stairway, looking back at Lena. “Hm?”
Lena hesitated. “Do you think… Do you think if a wound goes really deep, that the healing can feel just as bad as what caused it?”
Scrooge’s brow furrowed, but not in an altogether unkind way. “Might be,” he said, looking towards the back door. “Might be.”
Lena took a step towards him. “Scrooge –”
“Goodnight, Lena,” Scrooge said, heading up the stairs.
He didn’t need her pity.
Lena took the loaf of bread out to the tree stump, setting it down between two cans of beans. She straightened again –
– and jumped back with a gasp, because there was someone standing right there in front of her in the yard, just a few yards away, staring.
Lena recovered quickly, her voice barely trembling as she confronted the stranger: “If you’re gonna do something to me, why don’t you just go ahead and do it? I’m right here!”
The figure just stared across the stump at Lena. It was tall, and strangely dressed – too bundled up for the warm spring night, in a one-piece outfit that covered its entire form, to the point where Lena couldn’t have made any guesses about this person’s gender or anything else. As she watched, the stranger seemed to flicker in front of her, like static on an old TV set, at some moments turning almost transparent in the light of the full moon high above.
It slowly lifted one arm, the gloved hand curled around a small object, and set it down on the stump. For a few moments, the object flickered like the figure, and then it stopped, becoming as solid and real as the wooden stump beneath it. The stranger took a step backwards again, and stood there, silently.
“Okay then,” Lena said. She carefully reached down and picked up the object. It was a rock, small enough to fit on her palm, with lots of holes in it, like a grey stone sponge.
“A rock?” said Lena, her eyes shifting between it and the person who’d left it. “That’s… That’s very nice. Thank you.”
The stranger just stood, motionless besides its flickering, watching her with unseen eyes from behind some kind of visor. Lena slowly allowed herself to relax some.
“You scared me, that’s all,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”
Silence. Lena looked down at the loaf and cans on the stump, and back at the stranger.
“Did you get the food I’ve been leaving there?” she asked. “I’ve tried to mix up the kinds of cans I bring. I could bring you something other than bread if you want, too. I know how it is to eat the same thing over and over until you can’t stand the sight of it anymore. Would you like that, if I brought you something different next time?”
“My name’s Lena. Do you have a name?”
Again, silence – but the figure seemed to bow its head a little, as far as Lena could tell through all the coverings.
Lena turned the rock over in her hands a few times.
“I think… I’ll call you ‘Minnie,’ okay?” she said. “Minnie. Is that alright?”
Scrooge’s voice rang out from inside the Grill, loud enough though muffled by the walls between them. As Lena turned her head to look back, the stranger leapt forward, grabbing the bread and cans from the stump before dashing away into the woods.
Lena followed for a few steps. “Maybe next time we won’t be so rushed and we’ll have… a chance to chat,” she said, to the now-empty air. The stranger was gone.
She looked down again at the rock in her hands, shrugged, stuck it in her pocket, and went inside to see what Scrooge wanted.
Chapter 9: Shoot the Moon
In which more letters arrive.
One morning in late May, as Scrooge poured Donald a cup of coffee, Gyro came marching into the Grill, a stack of letters in his hand. He began to set them on the counter, one by one.
“Detroit,” he read aloud. “New York. Houston. Kansas City. Pittsburgh. Boston. Memphis. Rapid City. All of them, to Scrooge McDuck, care of the Sunchaser Grill.”
He glared at Scrooge over his glasses. “As postmaster of Duckburg, I have a legal right to know if the mail service is being used for any irregular purpose. So are you going to tell me what’s going on here, Mr. McDuck? Or do I have to open these letters myself?”
Scrooge suppressed a grin. “Not that it’s any of your business, Gyro,” he said, “but if you must know, I’m running a contest to give away the Grill.”
Gyro’s eyebrows rose so high, Lena and Webby, watching from the kitchen, wondered if they’d ever come down again. “What kind of contest?”
“Each of these is an entry,” Scrooge said, waving a hand at the letters on the counter. “From some poor soul who’s feeling lucky. It’ll be a cold day in Hell before anybody buys the Sunchaser, but at a hundred bucks a throw… who knows?”
Gyro looked over at Donald. “Is that even legal?”
Donald shrugged. “As far as I know. If Uncle Scrooge wants to raffle off his diner, he can.”
“I suppose you expect to see more of these envelopes, then,” Gyro said to Scrooge, who was collecting the envelopes – and the essays and money within –to place them safely in his back pocket, and later, securely in the safe.
“One can only hope!” Scrooge said.
Gyro shook his head, sitting in the chair across from Donald.
“He’ll be the laughingstock of town by the time this is over,” he said in a not-at-all-subtle whisper. “You mark my words – Scrooge McDuck’s greed has finally gotten the better of him!”
Beakley adjusted the phone against her ear.
“Yes, hello, is this the Gennesee Depot Gazette? I’m trying to track down some news articles about a trial… About five years ago… Yes, thank you, I’ll hold.”
Indeed there were more – the next day, the next three days, and the next week. Envelopes from Cincinatti and Buffalo, Tampa and Santa Fe, Albany and San Diego and, it seemed, everywhere in between. One almost arrived from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but Gyro confiscated it for insufficient postage.
Each envelope contained an essay of varying length and one hundred dollars in cash, though one prankster submitted Monopoly money instead. Scrooge put the little blue papers in the safe in the back of the Grill all the same.
Gyro threw open the door to the Sunchaser with a bang, blowing a whistle for emphasis.
“Gangway!” he shouted, and then called over his shoulder, “Bring ‘em in, boys!”
“Oh, what now, Gyro?” Scrooge said, coming around the counter.
Gyro moved a chair out of the way of the door. “Step aside, sir, back up!”
“Don’t rearrange my furniture!” Scrooge snapped.
Just then, in through the door came Fenton, struggling under the weight of an enormous overstuffed mailbag, on the side of which was scrawled “C/O THE SUNCHASER GRILL” in large letters. As he plopped the bag in the middle of the floor, Launchpad McQuack entered behind him, with two more identical bags, one under each arm.
“Coming through!” he said, nearly crushing Fenton as he dropped the bags near the first one.
Scrooge gaped, and Webby hopped up onto the counter to see better, as Lena stepped forward, hands shaking, to untie one of the mailbags.
“I hope you’re happy now, Scrooge McDuck,” Gyro said as the bag came open and envelopes spilled out into Lena’s hands.
“Holy Moses,” Webby gasped.
“Holy mackerel,” Lena agreed.
“Holy shit,” said Scrooge. And as everyone stared at him, he threw his hat in the air, and then threw his head back in loud, jovial laughter.
“Bless me bagpipes, girls!” he cried. “We’re selling the Grill!”
Chapter 10: Come Alive Again
In which things start to look up.
Long after the dishes were cleaned and dried for the night and the rest of Duckburg had gone to bed, Scrooge, Lena, and Webby sat at the center of the Grill, around a table piled high with essays. Though they were exhausted from the day’s work, there was a celebratory energy among the three of them. Scrooge had pulled a thick old bottle of scotch out from the cellar and poured all three of them a tall glass of it. Lena took one gulp and made a face that made Scrooge roar with laughter as she shoved the glass away. Webby had been taking small sips out of her glass, growing progressively gigglier as the night went on – though that might have just been because of the reading material.
“‘Dear Mr. McDuck,’” Webby read aloud, “‘if your grill goes to me, I will do my best to preserve its quaint, rustic charm. In time, I could expand it into a national chain of restaurants. But no matter how many mini-Sunchasers I open, I will continue to devote my attention to the original, and develop it into the cornerstone of a new theme park – Six Flags over Duckburg!’”
The three laughed over it together.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to be a theme park,” Scrooge said, as Webby tossed the letter aside.
“Wait, wait, listen to this one,” Lena said, holding up another piece of paper. “‘Dear Mr. McDuck. The reason I need your diner is because that’s where the aliens told me they will land.”
Scrooge slapped his hand down onto the table. “Maybe they’ll take Gyro with ‘em!”
They all howled with laughter again, clapping their hands. One of Webby’s hands ended up landing on Lena’s leg afterward, though she moved it away with a giggle before either of them could think too hard about it.
“We’re sending that one back tomorrow,” said Scrooge.
“You read one now, Mr. McDuck,” said Webby.
Scrooge fished an essay out of the pile. “Let’s see… ‘Dear Mr. McDuck. I’ve worked as a cook all my life, but hard as my husband and I have worked, we’ve never had more than two nickels to rub together. We talked about having our own little place someday, but that don’t put bread on the table.’
“That’s for sure,” he commented, and then continued. “‘But now my husband’s pretty sick. The doctors say there’s not much more that they can do for him. I’m sure there’s a lot of deserving people out there that the Sunchaser could take care of, but it would be a true blessing if the man I love could spend what’s left of his days in a town like Duckburg. And I could have something to sustain me when he’s gone.”
Scrooge kept looking at the essay for several long seconds after he’d fallen silent.
“Maybe you should hold on to that one,” Lena suggested quietly.
“I suppose,” said Scrooge. “But I don’t want to pick someone out of pity.”
“Well, what kind of person would you want in here?” Webby asked.
“I don’t know,” Scrooge mused. “Someone younger than me. Of course, everyone is younger than me,” he added with a chuckle, “but I’ve always thought it should be someone more your age than mine.”
“Funny,” said Lena. “I can’t imagine anyone running the Sunchaser besides someone like you, Mr. McDuck.”
“Me too,” said Webby.
“Is that so?” Scrooge folded the essay and set it aside. “And who’s been running this Grill so well these past months? Certainly not me and this damn leg. People have come here for almost twenty years just to pick at their food and complain, and I tell you, I’ve never seen so many smiles and cleaned-off plates as I did this spring. That wasn’t me who made that happen. That was all you. You girls put your heart and soul into your work, and the Grill’s never felt so alive – whoever gets this place is gonna have their work cut out for ‘em, running it without the two of you.”
“Thank you, Mr. McDuck,” Webby said.
“Call me Uncle Scrooge,” he replied. “Both of you. You’ve more than earned it.”
You wouldn’t think it possible for a grin to get any wider, but somehow Webby managed it.
Lena wasn’t sure how to respond, so she changed the subject.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do with all the money?” she said. There was well over two hundred thousand dollars in Scrooge’s safe by then.
“I’ve been thinking about that since the day I first put the Grill up for sale,” Scrooge said, taking a swig of scotch. “Almost gave up hope. But now… Now, we’ll see.”
Even if Duckburg hadn’t been so small, or prone to gossip, it would have been impossible for everyone in town not to notice all the envelopes arriving at the grill, and the next morning it was all that anyone at breakfast could talk about.
“A hundred dollars? For this place?”
“Not from me. I wouldn’t take it for free.”
“Probably retired rich people, bored and up for anything. Who else would even think of moving here?”
“Crazy people from the coast – we don’t need their kind here anyway.”
“What does McDuck need to sell the Grill for, anyway? Everyone knows he’s got the family fortune buried somewhere. He could retire in style without all this nonsense.”
“Do you think it’s a scheme that girl cooked up with her prison friends?”
“Scrooge’s greedy enough, he wouldn’t need the help.”
“Hey – do you think if I order the morning special, I’ll win something?”
“Sure – tell Scrooge some sweet-sounding lies, and get ready to pony up the cash!”
“Alright, that’s it!” Scrooge pulled an enormous stack of papers from behind the counter. “If you’re all so worked up about this contest, be my guest, jump right in.” He began to walk around the diner, dropping smaller piles onto the tables in front of his baffled customers.
“There’s more to read here than I could get through in a month,” he said. “So go ahead and read ‘em. Wipe that look off your face, Gyro, we all know you’re always reading everyone’s mail anyway. Now, you all come back to me with the best of the batch, and then maybe I’ll put up with your smart-ass remarks!”
Dear Mr. McDuck,
This October, I’ll have lived in this apartment building for fifteen years. And yet I still don’t know the names of the people who live across the hall from me.
“Well, then, you’re just not trying hard enough,” said Gyro, tossing the letter aside and picking up another one.
Dear Mr. McDuck,
If I dropped dead tomorrow, would my boss even notice I was gone? What I need is a place where people will notice me. Not because I want the spotlight. I just want to be a piece of things, to live someplace where my presence matters in some small way to the folks around me…
Dear Mr. McDuck,
I know that life isn’t fair. I know you can’t turn the clock back and undo the pain the world has caused you. But there’s got to be some hope left somewhere – and I think it’s there, in your little town.
“That raffle contest is keeping you rather busy, don’t you think?” Beakley said one morning, standing in the doorway to the bathroom as Webby finished brushing her hair.
“It’s a lot of fun, isn’t it?” Webby said, cheerily tying up her pink bow.
“Hm. Well, now that Mr. McDuck is back on his feet, he doesn’t need both you and Lena anymore,” said Beakley. “I think it’s time you stopped working at the Grill.”
Webby looked at her grandmother’s reflection in the mirror, eyes wide. “But I like working there!”
“And I like having you safe at home,” said Beakley. “I’ll let Scrooge know you’re quitting.”
Webby hesitated. “Granny… you’re my granny, not my boss.”
Beakley blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Uncle Scrooge is my boss,” Webby said, turning to step around Beakley and out of the bathroom. “And if I don’t leave now, I’ll be late for work. Have a nice day!”
She all but ran out of the house, Beakley staring after her in disbelief.
Dear Mr. McDuck,
I want to see more than concrete and glass. A home and workplace surrounded by trees, with birdsong coming in through every window and a cool wind kissing my cheeks – that’s the place for me!
Dear Mr. McDuck,
I don’t know if you’ve ever been a parent, but I have three children, and even though they’ve only been on this Earth under ten years, they already believe that they’ve seen it all, and that “it all” is nothing but pain. What happened to the days of carefree childhood, I wonder? I remember many happy days spent in my parents’ country home, years before I moved to the city. I smiled so much back then. I want my children to learn how to smile.
Dear Mr. McDuck,
From the sound of your place, why would you ever want to leave? I guess you must have your reasons, but I’m trying my hardest over here to imagine what they might be, and I just can’t figure it out.
Donald folded the letter again with a sigh. It probably wasn’t fair to the contestant, but he didn’t really feel like reading to the end.
All summer, more essays arrived every day, and they ended up in all corners of town. And the people of Duckburg read more in those months than most of them ever had in their lives – to themselves, and to each other, pointing out key sentences and arguing over their favorites.
And then, slowly, small changes began to occur on Main Street. Flowerboxes long left empty were filled with colorful petals. Storefronts were touched up with fresh paint. The cracks in the sidewalks, the result of a decade of uncaring winters, were patched and repaired. And cars with out-of-state plates began to park along the street, though Duckburg was nowhere near any major highways – and the people who got out of those cars were waved to more often than whispered about.
Someone overheard Mrs. Cabrera one morning, sitting on the front porch swing instead of the living room couch, a pile of essays in her lap, say to her son, “Isn’t this a lovely town we live in, pollito? We are so fortunate.”
Fenton blinked away tears. “Yes, M’ma, we are.”
Lena sat on the ground in the backyard of the Grill. Behind her, an apple pie rested on top of the old tree stump. In the light of the full moon, she read an essay aloud:
“‘Dear Mr. McDuck,
“‘I’ve never been a big fan of the word ‘optimist.’ People throw it at me like it’s a swear word, or an evil hex, something to spit more than say. It’s a fashionable thing to not have any hope, to look at war, and poverty, and oppression, and all the other terrible things that people often do, and think that that’s just how it is, and that it’s all it’s ever going to be. To act like you think otherwise is frowned upon.
“‘But whatever words you may use for the way I see the world, I refuse to believe that we know everything that’s ever going to happen to us, and I won’t think for a moment that all we’ve seen so far in life is all we can ever hope to have. And if I win the Sunchaser Grill, I’ll do everything I can to make sure that each and every person who eats there, no matter who they are, or where in the world they come from, feels safe and welcome, and steps back out onto Main Street with a spirit of hope.’”
She lowered the paper, looking out into the trees. She thought she saw a flicker of movement in the forest, of someone standing just out of sight. But it didn’t come closer.
“That’s alright,” Lena said aloud, “we all need our time alone.”
She stood and turned to walk back into the Grill. “Goodnight, Minnie.”
The next morning, when she stepped out to fetch some supplies from the cellar, Lena found another porous rock on the stump – this one polished and shiny.
Chapter 11: Forest for the Trees
In which there is a proposal.
Summer shifted into fall, and sweaters and scarves came back into fashion as a cool wind decorated the ground along Main Street with bronze-tinted leaves. But Mrs. Cabrera had chosen the front porch as her new spot, and the changing seasons weren’t going to chase her back indoors, so now she sat there on the swing, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and her wheelchair folded up against the house, chuckling over a stack of raffle contest essays as she narrowed them down to her favorites.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cabrera.”
Gyro Gearloose walked up the front steps to stand in front of her on the porch.
Mrs. Cabrera gave him a smile and nod, but was clearly more interested in her reading than her visitor. “Yes, it is.”
“Your son is late to work,” said Gyro, “and I couldn’t help but notice.”
Mrs. Cabrera turned her head towards the house. “Fenton!” she called. “Tu jefe está aquí.”
There was a crash from indoors, of cutlery on a tile floor, and then Fenton opened the kitchen window.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Gearloose! I overslept, so I made breakfast at home – I’ll be out as soon as everything’s cleaned up, just a moment!”
He half-closed the window and disappeared again. Gyro directed his attention back at Mrs. Cabrera.
“So,” he said, “out and about, are we?”
“We are both outside, yes,” Mrs. Cabrera said, her eyes on the paper in her hand.
“You’re feeling better, then? After all this time?”
Mrs. Cabrera set the essay down on her lap and looked at Gyro, eyes narrowed.
“Pollito,” she said, ostensibly to the window, though Fenton most certainly wasn’t in earshot anymore, “look at this boss of yours. All up in everyone else’s problems, as always. And where there are no problems, he makes them up – and why? So that he can fix them? No. So that he can talk about it.”
Gyro straightened imperiously. “Well, I never!”
Mrs. Cabrera shook her head. “You’re such smart boys,” she said. “Both of you. Men of science. Such a waste, to just watch, and talk, and fret about other people’s problems – when you could be thinking up ways to fix them, instead! Don’t you agree?”
Gyro turned to the window. “I’ll be at the store, Fenton, whenever it is you’re ready.
“Good day, Mrs. Cabrera,” he added with a single nod before stepping off the porch and walking away down Main Street.
Mrs. Cabrera shrugged and went back to reading the essays.
Scrooge stepped out onto the back porch of the Sunchaser Grill, looking up at the clear, starlit sky, points of sparkling light arranged around the shining full moon. He stepped carefully down the stairs and walked over to the stump, placing a loaf of bread and a few cans of corn on top of it.
As he turned to walk back into the Grill, Lena came out through the door.
“There you are, Uncle Scrooge,” she said, before noticing the loaf already on the stump. “Oh… you already took care of things.”
“Yeah,” Scrooge said with a single nod, moving to re-enter the Grill.
Lena bit her lip. “Uncle Scrooge – the food we leave out, are we leaving it for –?”
“These October nights get nippy,” Scrooge said, pointing to a quilt draped over the rocking chair on the porch. “Keep yourself warm.”
He stepped into the Grill, letting the door close behind him. Lena watched him go, and then looked over at the stump again. Feeling driven to contribute something to the monthly ritual, she walked across the yard, taking the well-worn photo out of her pocket.
Autumn colors along Copper Creek, near Duckburg, Wisconsin.
She tucked the photo between the bread and one of the cans, looking out into the trees as she straightened again – so she didn’t notice someone coming around the side of the Grill until they were right behind her.
Lena jumped, whirling around – and relaxing when she saw who it was.
“Webby,” she said, “have you ever considered wearing a bell around your neck?”
“Then you’d know I was coming, and you might run away,” Webby said with a teasing little smirk.
Lena laughed. “Maybe I would.”
“And that’d be a shame,” said Webby, “because then you’d never find out about this!”
She held up an envelope, and for a moment Lena thought it was another contest entry – but then she saw that the writing on the front was printed type, and that it read Purdue Polytechnic School of Aviation.
“It’s an acceptance letter,” Webby said, practically quivering with excitement. “I sent them my application months ago – Fenton helped me get it out on time, I didn’t tell anyone else – Lena, they want me to be a pilot!”
“Oh my god, Webs!” Lena grabbed Webby’s hands and squeezed them. “That’s amazing! I’m so proud of you!”
“It’s all because of you, Lena,” said Webby. “Remember, back when we first started working at the Grill? I would never have tried if you hadn’t said you thought I could.”
“So when’re you gonna tell your granny how excited for you she should be?” said Lena.
“Oh – I don’t know, maybe never,” said Webby. “The thing is… I don’t think I really want to go.”
Lena blinked. “Why not? It’s your choice, sure, but… why not? If they accepted you – And what about your dreams of seeing the world?”
“When I got it this morning, at first I couldn’t believe it,” said Webby. “And then by noon I was raring to go – but I couldn’t say it in the Grill; then the whole town would know in no time. I couldn’t wait until we got some time alone so I could tell you.”
“You did seem even more cheery than usual today,” Lena said, putting her hands in her pockets. They were getting a bit chilly in the night air.
“Heh, did I?” Webby stuffed the envelope into a pocket on her jeans. “Anyway, the more I thought about it, about going off to Indiana for a few years, and then flying all around the world, the more I started thinking that maybe the best thing about going on big adventures wasn’t the adventure at all, but having a home to come back to afterward. I mean, Uncle Scrooge and the others, they never stayed out there in any of the exciting places they went. They always came back here, to Duckburg.
“And I’ve been thinking a lot lately – not just today – there’s been this picture in my head, of a little house right by Copper Creek, with trees all around it, comfortable and safe. And in this picture – this dream, I guess – I live there, inside that house, with – with the woman I love.”
She paused, and put a hand on Lena’s arm.
“Lena, I think we should get married.”
Lena froze, her mouth agape, her brain scrambling to figure out what to say or do and coming up empty.
“I don’t have a ring or anything,” Webby continued, picking up speed. “I had the thought of making us matching friendship bracelets, but that seemed a little silly, though I could still do it, if you don’t think it’s silly, I just think, I’m sure, that we belong here, in these woods, and we belong together, and –”
“Webby!” Lena finally found her voice, and her legs, taking one quick step backwards. “Webby… You don’t want to marry me.”
Webby’s brow furrowed. “Why not?” She smiled, trying to lighten the mood again. “I’m already used to your cooking, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You…” Lena tried to put it into words. “You deserve better than me.”
“I don’t think there is better than you.”
Lena shook her head, turning to walk back towards the Grill. “Webby, you don’t know me.”
Webby chased her to the edge of the porch. “I know that you’re my friend! Lena, you’re my best friend!”
“Yeah, well do you know why I got locked up in prison for five years?!” Lena snapped, stopping at the base of the back steps and whirling around to face Webby again.
Webby stopped there, staring at her, waiting.
Lena took a deep breath, prepared herself for Webby to never look at her the same way again, and exhaled.
“I killed someone.”
Chapter 12: Wild Bird
In which things get dark.
Lena could have laughed. Wasn’t that just like Webby – not how could you, not what a monster you must be. Just who. Like she wanted to know what happened. Like she cared.
“My aunt,” Lena said, shivering for reasons other than the October breeze. “Magica de Spell.”
She looked down at her hands, and then up again.
“I was fifteen when I came into her care. I’d been in a lot of homes before then, if you could call them that. Mostly people not related to me. Then Aunt Magica came out of whatever hole she’d crawled into, and the social workers sent me over there.
“She had another girl, already. Minima. Minima de Spell. Younger than me. I called her ‘Minnie.’ I suppose we were cousins, maybe, if any of us were actually related. But she called Magica her ‘Aunt,’ too.
“Magica was… a sorceress. She had all kinds of awful projects going on in that house. Evil things. Your own shadow might grab you by the neck, if you didn’t watch where you stepped. Every day there was a waking nightmare. The nights weren’t so bad. There’s plenty of places to hide, in a dark house.”
Lena took another deep, shaky breath, and because Webby was still standing there watching her, she continued.
“But I don’t think she had any magic of her own. Aunt Magica, I mean. She used us instead, me and Minnie. She’d put one of us at the center of this ring of chalk on the floor, and she’d drain us. Take our magic and suck it out of us, and use it to fuel her schemes.”
“Lena…” Webby whispered.
“At night, when we were trying to sleep, Minnie would cry,” Lena went on. “And I would hold her, in whatever quiet spot we’d found in the dark, and I’d tell her a thousand times not to worry; I’d promise her that I’d keep her safe no matter what. I started thinking about her like – like she was a little sister? Or a daughter? Even though there wasn’t really that big of an age gap between us. I loved her. I’d never had anyone I loved like that before.”
Lena paused again for air, but she was too far in to consider stopping now, the story was like river water flowing out of her.
“And then one day, Magica was working on something really big. She had Minnie there in the circle, and I didn’t really know what was going on, but I could tell it was taking too much energy. And I tried to tell her, I really did, I said it was too much for Minnie to handle, that she should use me, instead, I had more magic in me, I could take it, I knew I could. But Magica, she didn’t listen, she just shoved me away and she kept going, and Minnie –”
She broke off, turning her face to the ground, squeezing her eyes shut and pressing a hand to her mouth. Out of her sight, Webby’s hands were over her own mouth, too.
“The doctor…” Lena did her best to choke out the words, lowering her hand but keeping her face towards the grass. “The doctor said, in the hospital, that it was… was cardiac arrest. An accident. Nothing anybody could have done. But I knew better. And all I could think, looking at her, all tiny and limp on that big white bed… All I could think was how I hadn’t kept my promise.
“De Spell – Aunt Magica – she must have been afraid someone would start asking too many questions, ‘cause she shoved me in the back of her car and just drove off. We ended up in a motel somewhere, and all she would do was laugh. She laughed at me, and she laughed at Minnie, and she said that it was right that Minnie died, that that was all we were good for, she said that I was nothing, that Minnie was nothing – and I didn’t say anything, I just sat there, until she got up and went to the bathroom.
“Magica always had a, a Vesuvian diamond dagger in her bag; those can cut through anything. And as soon as she was in the other room, I reached into her bag, and I – I –”
Lena broke off again, and this time she couldn’t stop the tears from coming, and she sagged down to sit on the porch stairs, shaking and sobbing.
“Lena…! Oh, Lena-girl!”
Suddenly Webby was sitting there next to her, pulling her close, letting Lena rest her head in her lap and cry into her leg, stroking her hair with a hand, and whispering to her:
“Lena, it’s okay, go ahead and cry. You’re safe. I’m here, I’ve got you. Oh, Lena, you are so brave, if I were half as strong as you… It’s alright, Lena, just rest now, you can rest. Everything will feel better in the morning…”
She kept going until Lena, exhausted, fell asleep.
After a time, Webby carefully extracted herself from under Lena, taking the quilt from the rocking chair and wrapping it around the other girl to keep her warm.
She walked back through the grill to the front door, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. Just as she reached the door, it opened – and Beakley came rushing in, a crumpled piece of paper in her hand.
“Granny!” Webby startled. “What are you –?”
“Where’s Lena?” Beakley asked sharply.
“She’s – she’s out back, why do you –?”
“And where is Scrooge?”
“Upstairs, gone to bed.”
Beakley nodded once. “Good. Go home, Webby.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I said go home.”
Webby didn’t move. “I want to know why you’re here.”
“Fine. You might as well know.” Beakley held out the paper in her hand. “I had the newspaper in Gennesee Depot send me photocopies of articles about Lena de Spell’s trial. You should read them.”
Webby shook her head. “I don’t care what they say.”
“You should,” said Beakley, her voice low and intense. “That ‘friend’ of yours stabbed her aunt in the back – literally.”
“Granny, please –”
“And not just once or twice – twenty or thirty times, the coroner couldn’t even tell!”
“Webby, that girl is a cold-blooded killer.”
“That girl is the first hope we’ve had since Della was here!” Webby snapped.
Beakley blinked. “Webby, listen to me –”
“No! You listen! Lena is the best thing that’s ever happened to this town! She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my life! And you’ve been so busy trying to protect everyone from anything different, you can’t even see it! It’s never even occurred to you that maybe Lena needs protecting, too, has it?! But Lena is better than anything that happened to her before she came here, and she’s better than anything that she’s done, or that people say she’s done, or anything that people say about her at all! So you leave her alone!”
Grandmother and granddaughter stood there in the doorway of the Grill, staring at each other, Webby’s hands balled into fists. Gradually, she relaxed them again.
“Out,” she said, pointing over Granny’s shoulder at Main Street. “You’re going home, right now, and I’m going with you, to make sure you don’t do anything stupid or cruel.”
It was never easy to tell what Bentina Beakley was thinking by looking at her. She was too stern-faced for that. But she was probably more surprised than anything else to find herself turning around and obeying Webby’s orders.
Chapter 13: Shine
In which shit goes down.
The night was still young, as autumn nights still shaking off the long days of summer tend to be, when a flickering figure stepped out of the trees on see-through boots that didn’t even dent the grass beneath them. The figure stopped when it saw Lena, still bundled up and asleep on the back porch, and then made its slow, quiet approach, past the stump and to Lena’s side.
One gloved hand opened, revealing a small gray rock, carved and polished into a long shape with two wings – a tiny stone airplane. It set the plane down by Lena’s hand, and watched the sleeping girl for a few moments with its unseen eyes before straightening again.
The stranger reached down for the loaf of bread on the stump, but then stopped – and carefully picked up the folded travel book page. After a couple seconds, the page began to flicker like every object the stranger held, and then it unfolded the paper, holding it up to read in the moonlight.
Lena stirred, and awakened, first curling her fingers around the little stone plane, and then realizing that she wasn’t alone.
“Minnie?” she said, sitting up slowly, shrugging away the quilt. “Is that you?”
The stranger said nothing, continuing to study the picture.
Lena looked down at the plane in her hand, and up again at the stranger’s back.
“Della?” she said, giving voice to a suspicion she’d had for a while.
Slowly, cautiously, the figure – Della – turned its – her – torso towards Lena, and even more slowly, her head inclined in a nod.
Lena stood, holding out the little plane. “You made this, didn’t you? Is it moon rock? I don’t know much about space…”
Della made no clear reply, not moving at all except for closing her hand around the travel book page.
Lena took one step towards her, and then another.
“Are you a ghost?” she asked.
Della shook her head. Then she shrugged. Then she shook her head again.
“Della, how are you here?” said Lena. “What happened to you? I… I need to know.”
Della was still for a moment, and silent as ever. Then she lifted a hand and beckoned at Lena, before turning and walking quickly back the way she’d come, into the woods.
Lena set the little stone airplane down on the stump, on top of the untouched loaf of bread, and followed.
Della’s pace through the trees was brisk, as she strode along unimpeded by the foliage around her. Lena wasn’t so fortunate, and had to pick her way over roots and under branches, once or twice calling for Della to slow down so she wouldn’t lose sight of her.
Onward into the forests of Duckburg they went, past Copper Creek. If it had been daylight, and if they hadn’t been in such a hurry, Lena might have noticed the very autumn colors that had first drawn her to this lonely Wisconsin town – but she had neither time nor focus to devote to recognizing such a thing, not when Della Duck, favorite child of Duckburg, missing these fifteen years, was there in front of her, rushing on ahead.
Della finally stopped at a wide clearing, and Lena came up next to her, panting as she scanned the scene. Something, some large structure, had stood here once, that much she could tell – but whatever it was, all that was left had been overgrown with weeds in the last decade and a half.
Lena had a feeling, though, that this space had once held the command tower and launching platform for a rocket ship.
One object in the clearing was not so overgrown, and Della pointed at it, though it would have caught Lena’s attention regardless – a metal cube on the ground, about the size of a basketball, with many antenna-like wires sticking out of it. From the wires, many thin beams of light formed a circle in the air, like a window without a wall, which flickered just as much as Della did. With every flicker, the cube sparked and fizzed like an old radio.
Lena took a few cautious steps towards the cube, squinting her eyes to peer through the window. It was difficult to tell, the image was so distorted, but she thought she saw the interior of a very small room, with its own porthole-like window in one of the walls looking out on a black, starry sky.
“Is that your ship?” Lena asked. “Is that… Is this thing how you got back to Earth?”
Della pointed up at the full moon shining high above the clearing. Then she pointed at her own chest, and at the window again.
“You have to go back,” Lena guessed. “It only… It’s only open this once a month, isn’t it? That’s when Uncle Scrooge leaves food for you. When you can come back and get it.”
Della nodded. Lena looked down at the cube.
“Is it supposed to spark like that?” she asked.
Della shook her head, vigorously.
“So it’s broken,” said Lena, “or incomplete, or…”
She trailed off, an idea taking shape in her head, in the way it did when she knew what needed to be done, but had no idea how to achieve it.
But she thought she knew someone who might know what to do.
“You stay right there,” she said to Della. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back. I promise.”
Fenton Crackshell-Cabrera hadn’t expected to be woken up in the middle of the night by someone knocking on his second-floor bedroom window. His surprise and confusion only doubled when he pulled back the blinds to see Lena sitting perched on the windowsill.
“M-Miss de – I mean, Lena,” he corrected himself. “What are you doing here? How – how did you get up here?”
“What, never had to sneak out a window before?” Lena said, allowing herself a moment of levity before turning serious again. “Fenton, I need your help.”
“What time is it?”
“Doesn’t matter. We don’t have much of it, anyway. There’s a science-y thing, and it’s broken, and I need someone who understands science-y things to fix it. And there’s someone in a lot of trouble that you’d help by fixing it, right now, before morning. Will you come?”
Fenton hesitated. “I-I don’t know…”
Lena snarled. “She needs help, Fenton! And didn’t you say you wished you could be more helpful?”
Fenton exhaled. “Alright. Just let me – let me put on some pants.” He paused. “You don’t expect me to climb out the window, do you?”
This time as she hurried through the woods, Lena was the one who had to be asked several times to slow down. She led Fenton to the clearing, where the flickering figure still stood waiting next to the flickering window in the air.
“Blathering blatherskite,” Fenton gasped, his brain quickly putting the pieces together. “Is that a, a spacesuit? Oh my – is that Della Duck?!?”
Della lifted a slow hand in something like a wave “hello.”
“That’s the science-y thing,” said Lena, pointing at the metal cube under the window of light. “It must be why she’s all flicker-y like this. Do you know what it is?”
Fenton knelt on the ground by the metal cube, investigating.
“It’s some kind of portal-based teleportation device,” he said, sounding increasingly excited with each word. “I’ve only heard about this, read about it in theoretical papers – I barely dreamed I’d live to see the day when science made one a reality!”
“But something’s wrong with it,” Lena said.
Fenton pried open a panel on one side of the cube. Della crouched on the ground next to him, and Lena could tell, despite the opaque visor, that she was watching him closely, no doubt wary of anyone meddling with this device, but allowing him to work.
“In theory, one device interacts with a partner device, working together across space to generate the portal,” Fenton said as he poked around inside the cube. “As the subject passes through, the device at one end deconstructs their form to its most basic particles, while the other reconstructs it – the process, though, is instantaneous enough to be imperceptible to the user; it should just feel like stepping through a hole from one location to another, but you can’t actually do that, the complete mass of a person is just too complex to bypass space like that. So, instead, you deconstruct the mass into particles simple enough that can travel like that, and reconstruct them at the other end.”
He looked over at Della. “If I had to guess – which I do have to – something’s gone wrong with the reconstruction part of the system. Ms. Duck, when you’re on the other side, are you – incorporeal?”
Della shook her head, holding up a fist.
“No. Solid,” said Fenton. “Um, okay, that’s good, we can work with that; that means the issue’s on this end.”
He looked at the cube’s inner workings again. “But everything here seems to be in order. At least, according to my assumptions about how something like this should work. It even has an internal battery – solar powered, very efficient. So why is it not reconstructing her correctly?”
“She can take things with her, through the portal,” Lena said. “Food, and such. And she’s brought back rocks.”
“So it does properly reconstruct some things,” Fenton mused. “Inanimate objects are less complex than a living being. I wonder – just how far away is the other device?”
Della pointed up at the moon. Fenton snapped his fingers.
“That explains it!” he said. “The moon is nearly two hundred and forty thousand miles away – even if you put the teleportation devices on opposite ends of the Earth, they’d only be eight thousand miles from each other at the most – that’s straight through the Earth’s core, mind you, not circumference, but even then they’d only be twelve thousand miles from each other at the most – and this is twenty times that distance! That kind of distance would be too much of a strain on the battery, especially a solar battery at night!”
“And the portal only opens at night,” Lena said. “On the full moon.”
“Likely that’s when the Earth and the moon are oriented in the way that the devices are optimized for,” said Fenton. “You have to be careful about such things – setting up teleportation devices on two planetary bodies that are moving in completely different directions – yes, it would only work under very specific circumstances, if it worked at all.” He shook his head. “If we only had more power!”
“How much do you need?” Lena asked.
Fenton shrugged. “To create a stable portal connection across two hundred and forty thousand miles… We’d blow every fuse in Duckburg. If not the entire county. If not the entire state. No, the state’s a bit much. The county, certainly. But only because Duckburg doesn’t have that many electrical devices to begin with. Still, I can’t think of where we’d get that kind of energy.”
Lena looked down at her hands. She formed them into fists.
“Don’t worry about the energy source,” she said. “I’ve got that covered. Can you make sure that it works while I charge it?”
“I can,” said Fenton. “But what –?”
“Just do it,” said Lena. “There can’t be much nighttime left, and then it won’t be the full moon anymore. We have to do this now!”
Fenton nodded, though still looking puzzled. “Ms. Duck,” he said, “you should head back through to the other side. Get nice and solid, and be ready to head back through again right away!”
Della saluted him, and stood, giving Lena a long look.
“Go,” said Lena, and Della did, stepping through the window – the device sparked and fizzed once again – and then she was gone, into the blurriness on the other side.
“Show me where to plug in,” said Lena, kneeling on the ground next to Fenton.
Fenton pointed at the little solar battery. “There. But what are you –?”
Lena reached into the cube and cupped her hands around the battery. She took in a long breath, and exhaled even longer.
She’d watched her aunt perform hundreds of spells, some with rhyming incantations and some without. And by observing, she’d taught herself to do some of them – healing cuts and burns, for example, was an easy one that she’d used so often while in her aunt’s house that she’d completely forgotten herself that first day in the kitchen and done it right in front of Scrooge’s face.
But she’d never instigated this particular spell herself. It had always been done to her, and in contexts very different to this one. This context required some rephrasing.
“Space re-shaper, traveler’s tool,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “Let my power be your fuel.”
First her hands, and then the rest of her body, began to glow with a pink light. Beside her, Fenton gasped, agape, as even Lena’s eyes turned pink and blank.
“Child of Duckburg, gone too much – Your feet once more the Earth shall touch!”
It wasn’t her best couplet, but it did the trick. With the second line, the spell activated – and Lena felt the magic rushing out of her, and through the battery, and into the cube-shaped device. The wires sticking out of it were engulfed in a pink halo, this new light twisting and combining with the light that formed the window in the air, as the device sparked and fizzed even more than before.
The image in the window twisted, shifted – but still it was blurry, unclear, flickering.
“It’s not enough,” Fenton muttered under his breath. “Oh, it’s not enough…”
Lena closed her eyes, mentally reached down to the bottom of her soul, and pushed – but Fenton was right, it wasn’t enough, she could feel her heart working over-time and the strength draining from her limbs. And she internally raged at the device, at the moon, at her feeble heart, at this body that wasn’t enough. She was giving the portal everything she had, every ounce of magic and energy and strength, and it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t going to work, she was going to collapse, she was going to fail Della just like she’d failed Minnie –
– and then she heard a voice, as clearly as though she were still sitting on the steps of the back porch, looking out at the trees behind the Sunchaser Grill, while Donald spoke to her:
“I think about the people I care about. They’re why I’m doing what I’m doing… That’s what keeps me going. That’s what makes me strong, and brave, when I have to be.”
Not so long ago, she had had no one that she cared about. When Lena arrived in Duckburg, the only person she loved had been dead for five years.
Who was why she was doing what she was doing?
Della, of course. She’d been suffering too long; she needed more than loaves of bread and canned vegetables. She needed to come home. Lena was doing this for her.
And Donald, her grumpy parole officer, he needed his sister, his twin; she was his memory that he couldn’t help but get angry about. Lena was doing this for him. And the boys, they needed their mother, whom they never had a chance to know; Lena was doing this for them, too.
And she was doing this for the town, which despite the coffee cups and gossip was so close to what she imagined a home might feel like, this town that had lost its way when Scrooge McDuck lost his niece – and Scrooge, Uncle Scrooge, who trusted her to run his Grill, and to sell his Grill, Lena was doing this for him.
And Webby. Sweet Webby. Webby who wanted to fly. Webby who had known all along what this town could be, even when it had fallen so far from what it had been. Webby who looked at Lena and somehow saw someone beyond compare, who looked at Lena and somehow saw a friend, a best friend, a wife –
As Fenton watched, the light all over Lena’s body shifted from pink to blue, and the blue light surged into the teleportation device.
And Lena had never felt so strong or so sure as she did right then, and she opened her eyes and looked up towards the window in the air, and at that moment the sun broke over the horizon and its rays turned the forest around her to gold and burned all the darkness out of her and she saw a gloved hand reaching out towards her and –
Lena was on her back. Her head was pounding, and her chest and sides were sore. She felt like she might throw up.
She forced open her eyes, and immediately closed them again with a groan; the sunlight hurt.
“Oh thank heavens, you’re awake, you’re alive –”
That was Fenton’s voice, somewhere above her and to the side.
“–I’m so sorry, I may have cracked your ribs, I’ve only ever performed CPR on test dummies before, never an actual person, and I couldn’t tell if it was working, I couldn’t find a pulse, I didn’t –”
He kept talking, but just then a gentle, gloved hand touched the top of Lena’s head, and something shaded her eyes. Lena tried opening them again.
There was a face looking down at her, a face she’d never seen before but was nonetheless familiar – Della’s helmet was finally off, and even besides her resemblance to her twin, there was a clear family resemblance to Scrooge and to each of the boys as well. She had hair cascading down over the collar of her spacesuit, gone long from years of missed haircuts, and behind her the bright reds and yellows of autumn formed what seemed to be a kind of halo around her. The colors of paradise come down to earth.
“Hi, Minnie,” Lena croaked, and for the first time in fifteen years, a genuine smile spread across Della Duck’s face.
Della helped Lena sit up, just enough so that she could see what was left of the metal cube, in a smoldering pile at her feet.
Lena never saw the travel book picture again; she always supposed that it had been lost to the inky abyss of space.
Webby barely looked up from the table she was clearing as Beakley entered the Grill. The breakfast crowd had for the most part left, with the exception of Donald and the boys, who had had a late start due to some complicated prank gone wrong – the four conflicting narratives shouted, muttered, and whined over their meal rendered the details of the prank itself rather unclear, but it had had something to do with the boat in the backyard, and some fireworks.
“Morning, Bentina,” said Scrooge from the counter, his eyes briefly flickering to and from Webby again, acknowledging her lack of response but not commenting on it. “Or, afternoon, nearly.”
“Mr. McDuck,” said Beakley, still somewhat standing in the front doorway.
“Missed you at breakfast, Mrs. B,” Donald called over to her.
“I wasn’t hungry,” said Beakley. She looked towards the kitchen, but it was empty. “Where’s the rest of your staff?”
Scrooge shrugged. “Good question. I haven’t yet seen Lena today.”
If he had gotten up in the middle of the night and thought anything of the quilt discarded on the back porch steps, or the food left on the stump when it had always been taken before, or the little stone airplane left there with it, he didn’t say.
“Would you like some coffee?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” said Beakley. “Perhaps an English muffin as well?”
“Coming right up,” said Scrooge, stepping around the counter and into the kitchen.
Lena stepped onto the back porch, leading Della along behind her by the hand. She was trembling – they both were, and Fenton behind them, too, though probably for a different reason. He’d been fretting the entire way back through the woods, telling Lena to slow down, that they should get her to a doctor. But there was no time for that, no time to think about that, the trembling was probably just excitement anyway, she needed to get Della back to the Grill, that was the only thing that mattered right now.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly to Della, who was looking at her feet, both marveling at how they made contact with the wood of the porch and struggling with how a full nine-point-eight-meters-per-second-squared of gravity felt on her body once more, and wrestling with a good amount of trepidation, too.
“It’s okay,” Lena said again, opening the back door and leading her through, “come on in.”
Webby, turning from the table with a dirty plate in her hand, saw the door open first – and the long-haired woman standing in the doorway – and the plate fell from her hands, clanging loudly against the floor.
At that sound, everyone looked.
Scrooge ducked back out of the kitchen. “Webby, what –?”
His eyes fell on the doorway, and widened. “Oh my stars…”
“Who –?” Beakley began, before it hit her, too, and for the second time in as many days she was shocked into silence.
“Della?” Donald said in a strangled voice.
But Della’s eyes weren’t on any of them. They had jumped straight to the three teenagers sitting around the table with Donald, who were each staring right back at her.
“Boys?” she whispered.
“M-Mom?” said Dewey.
And Della turned tail and ran, her hand sliding out of Lena’s as she passed Fenton, stumbled down the steps of the porch, and fled back into the woods.
“Wait!” Scrooge rushed around the counter, brushing past Lena and to the porch. “Wait! Don’t go! Don’t go!”
But she was gone. Scrooge stared at the empty yard for a moment, and then whirled around, marching back into the Grill, straight towards Lena.
“What did you do?!” he demanded. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!?”
“Uncle Scrooge,” said Lena, “I didn’t mean to –”
“If you’ve harmed her in any way, I swear – Did you even think about what you were meddling with?! Damn you!”
“I was just trying to –”
“Shut your mouth, you worthless, tenebrous witch!”
And at that, whatever manic drive had been carrying Lena along all through the last night and to this morning suddenly drained away, and she stood there, staring dumbly at Scrooge.
“Leave her alone!” Webby shrieked.
Scrooge rounded upon her next. “This is a family matter! You are not family!”
“See here, McDuck,” Beakley snapped, “you will not speak to my granddaughter that way!”
“You will not speak to me that way!” Scrooge bit right back.
Donald’s wail brought them all out of their anger. He was still sitting at the table, his fingers gripping its edge for dear life, looking over at Scrooge with eyes that begged for answers.
Scrooge let out a long sigh and sat in the nearest tall diner chair.
“We knew you weren’t in favor of her going to space,” he said. “It was risky – there’s always risk in adventure. But I set about building the Spear of Selene anyway. If we couldn’t get around to using it before the boys were born, then at least it would be a surprise, to celebrate their birth.
“But Della was always good at sniffing out surprises. She figured out what I was doing, and surprised me instead, showing up at the build site. Ever the aviator, I could tell she was eager to get her hands on the controls and head into orbit – but I suppose something you said in that little spat of yours stuck with her. She still wanted to give her boys the stars, but she didn’t want them in the rocket next to her, just in case something went wrong.
“So we devised a compromise. Della would go in the rocket. But she would take with her a means of return, and a means for others to safely follow, without all the risks of space travel. A portal-based teleportation device. An experimental technology, but based in sound scientific theory, and built by two of the most brilliant minds on Earth!”
He paused for a moment, in prideful memory, before letting his shoulders sag again.
“Neither of us could have predicted that cosmic storm. But we both knew a little bit of pan-galactic precipitation wouldn’t stop her. After all, she was Della Duck! I tried to talk her through it. I thought if anyone could make it, it was her. But then I lost contact with the rocket. For a dreadful few hours, I thought I’d completely lost her, as well.
“But there was one chance left: the teleporter. If she had managed to set it up, if she had found some stable spot to land – we’d been hoping for the moon, but any chunk of space rock would do – then she could come back. I set up the device at our end and waited. I didn’t tell anyone. What would be the point of getting everyone’s hopes up, if it didn’t work? You were furious enough as it was, Donald, it would have been foolish to interrupt your grief without her there at my side.
“A few days passed. Finally, on the night of the full moon, the portal opened, and Della stepped through. But something was wrong. She couldn’t fully materialize here on Earth. Small things, inanimate objects, they went through the portal just fine, but Della – she couldn’t take off her spacesuit, she couldn’t speak, we couldn’t even touch. That seemed to startle her most of all.
“I couldn’t bring her back to Duckburg like that. I had to fix this. I tried everything. For the next year, I poured every last penny I had into repairing the portal, and sending additional rockets after her… I spared no expense. It’s all gone. That McDuck family fortune the town’s always going on about? There’s nothing left of it. But nothing I tried worked. She still remained just out of reach.
“All I could think to do then was sell the Grill. Perhaps I could make enough for one last attempt to bring her home, take a rocket up myself… But it was taking too long. Nobody wanted this ramshackle old place.
“We’d put some basic provisions on the rocket, just in case the trip proved longer than expected, but nothing for long-term living. I knew that she’d need more to live on, while we waited for someone to buy the Grill. But I couldn’t get near her anymore; if she saw me at the launch site, she wouldn’t come out through the portal. So, one full moon, I left a loaf of bread, and some other provisions, on the stump in the back yard. And she took it. That’s been our only contact in years… until this morning.”
Scrooge’s eyes, and the rest of the room’s, turned to the back doorway then, and to Lena and Fenton standing in it.
“I…” Lena had no idea what to say; her brain was all fuzzy. “We… got it to work.”
“Cool,” Dewey suddenly said, in a bitter tone that drew all attention back to the table in the center of the Grill. “So you just, pretended that our mom was dead, for fifteen years.”
“I did what was best!” said Scrooge. “I did everything I could to bring her back to us. Back to you!”
“Sure,” said Louie, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his hoodie, “it was the least you could do, since it’s your fault she was up there at all! Building her a crazy dangerous rocket and portal thing?!”
“Both of which were her idea!” Scrooge retorted.
“And then you encouraged her to keep flying in a cosmic storm?!” said Huey. “You could have called her down! And after that, you could have asked anyone to help you figure things out! But it had to be you, didn’t it?!”
“I didn’t want to cause you concern!”
Donald slowly stood, his face bright red and his entire body trembling.
“Concern?!” he said again. “I mourned her! I mourned my twin!”
Scrooge shook his head helplessly. “Donald, I –”
But Donald didn’t let him finish, snatching up his coffee mug from the table and draining it in one gulp.
“Here’s to the Sunchaser!” he shouted, drawing back and sending the mug flying across the room. It shattered against the opposite wall, raining ceramic shards and brown droplets onto the linoleum. Then the sheriff grabbed his boys by their arms and marched them out the front door, slamming it shut behind them.
Those remaining in the Grill stood in silence for a moment.
Then Lena suddenly felt very lightheaded. She barely managed to catch herself against the edge of the counter as she swayed.
Webby came running across the diner as Fenton helped Lena into a nearby chair.
“What’s wrong?!” Webby demanded, kneeling at Lena’s side, one hand on Lena’s leg and another on her shoulder.
I’m fine, is what Lena wanted to say, but she couldn’t quite focus enough to get her mouth to shape the words.
“W-Well, she’s been running around in the woods all night, for one thing,” Fenton stammered, “and she charged the portal device with, with some kind of magical energy, from inside herself? There was a lot of bright light, and then she collapsed; she went into cardiac arrest, and I resuscitated her, but she really needs to see a doctor!”
“Cardiac arrest?!” Webby gasped. “Oh, Lena, you beautiful idiot, what did you do?!”
And it was such a different kind of “what did you do” than the one that Scrooge had said to her, it made Lena want to take Webby’s head in her hands and press her lips into her hair, but she couldn’t seem to move, she was too dizzy.
“She needs to see a doctor,” Fenton said again.
“We’ll take her.” Beakley crossed the diner to stand next to them. “You should go home, Mr. Crackshell-Cabrera; no doubt your mother’s worried sick about you.”
“Lena…” Beakley bent down towards her, putting a hand on the back of the chair. “Lena, may I carry you to the car?”
Lena managed a tiny nod. Beakley gently scooped her up into her strong, broad arms, cradling the girl as she carried her through the front door of the Grill, Webby and Fenton hurrying along behind her.
And then the door closed behind them all, and Scrooge McDuck was alone inside the Sunchaser Grill.
Chapter 14: Way Back Home
In which hope returns.
Between the drive to Prairie du Chien, the time spent in waiting rooms, and the doctor’s thorough questioning and examination, by the time Beakley’s car ended up in her driveway again, the sun was very low in the western sky.
The doctor had given Lena the okay to leave, with some pain medication for the bruised ribs, instructions for her to take it easy for a few weeks, and advice for Webby and Beakley to keep an eye on her for any signs of difficulty breathing or symptoms of aspiration pneumonia.
The car ride itself had been blessedly uneventful. Webby and Lena sat in the back, with Lena’s head on Webby’s shoulder and Webby’s thumb stroking the back of Lena’s hand, and no one said much of anything. Every now and then, Lena noticed Beakley looking at her in the rearview mirror, with an expression like she was seeing the girl for the first time. Lena had no idea what to do with that. But there had been long stretches of the drive where she could forget about it and just be there with Webby, feeling something like…
It took her until they were getting out of the car for her to put a word to the feeling: peace.
“So, what now?” Webby said as they stood in the driveway.
Lena shrugged. “Back to the Grill, I guess.”
Webby nodded. “I’ll walk you there.”
It wasn’t necessary – the Grill was a straight shot down Main Street from here, like everything else – but Lena wasn’t in the mood to turn Webby down.
Lena and Webby both looked over at Beakley. Her usual stern expression had softened into something like… contrition?
“Listen, dear, I may have been a bit quick to judge you,” she said. “Know that if you’re ever in need of a place to stay, you’re welcome at our house anytime.”
Lena really didn’t know what to do with that.
“Okay,” she said.
Then Webby took her by the hand and led her down the street.
If there were faces watching from the windows as they passed – and let’s be honest, there probably were – neither girl cared.
“How are you feeling?” Webby asked for probably the twelfth time that day.
“Tired,” Lena said, honestly. “What about you, though?”
“What, me? I’m fine. You’re the one who’s been through hell today.”
“But after what Scrooge said…”
“I don’t care what he said.”
Lena laughed softly. “Of course you don’t.”
They stopped on the sidewalk, a few yards from the front porch of the Sunchaser.
“What about last night,” said Lena, “and what I said?”
“What about it?”
“That doesn’t… change anything?”
Webby smirked a little. “Granny’s trained in every martial art and knows at least sixty-seven different ways to kill someone. I’m not gonna be bothered by you killing one person, in one way, once.”
Lena blinked. “I see.”
“And even if I were bothered, if anyone deserves a second chance, it’s you.” Webby gave Lena’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I’ll show up for work in the morning, don’t worry.”
She let Lena’s hand go and began to walk back up the street.
Lena hesitated. “Hey, Webby?”
Webby stopped, turning around to look at Lena, waiting.
“I…” Lena shook her head. “Shit. I’m no good at this. I just… Thank you. For believing in me. Even when I didn’t.”
“I think everyone here could thank you for the same thing,” Webby said. “Especially me.”
“I guess so.” Lena hesitated again. “And, uh… Maybe, when things calm down a bit… We could talk some more about that little house by the creek?”
As Lena’s words clicked, Webby did her very best to contain herself. All the same, Lena thought the girl might explode, she was grinning so much.
“I’d like that – very much – Miss de Spell.”
For once, Lena smiled at the honorific. “Just Lena is fine.”
Webby turned and walked away, still grinning, and definitely headed off to shove her face into a pillow and squeal with delight.
When Lena entered the diner, Scrooge was there, wiping down the counter with a rag. The tables were cleared and the chairs pushed back in from the dinner rush, and the broken coffee mug had long since been cleaned away.
Scrooge looked up as Lena let the door swing shut behind her. “What’s the prognosis?” he asked.
“No brain damage,” she said. “Nothing new, anyway.”
It was almost a joke, and Scrooge almost considered laughing at it.
“Hopefully that fool doctor knows what he’s talking about,” he said.
Lena began to walk towards the upwards staircase.
She stopped. “Yes, sir?”
Scrooge’s eyes were on the countertop. “I never should have called you that,” he said.
Lena shook her head. “No matter.”
“It does matter.”
“I’ve been called worse.”
“I know.” Scrooge looked up from the counter to make eye contact with Lena. “And for that, I’m sorry.”
Lena took a step back towards the counter, testing the waters. “I’m sorry, too… Uncle Scrooge.” She took another step. “Don’t worry about Donald and the others. They’ll come around.”
Scrooge sniffed derisively. “What’s another ten years of silence among family?”
“It won’t take that long.”
“Oh, sure. And I suppose you think Della’s just going to walk back through that door, and we’ll all start acting like the last nigh-on-two-decades never happened?” Scrooge threw the rag into the sink. “She might never come back at all, after what you put her through.”
“After what I – ?” Lena rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. “No. No, that’s not it; now you’re just looking for things to fight about. Della’s back, Scrooge; she’s on Earth and alive, and whatever she does with that life is hers to decide. What are you really angry about?”
Scrooge was silent for a long time, glaring at the rag in the sink. Lena wanted nothing more than to go lie down, but she stayed right where she was, waiting.
“…it should have been me,” Scrooge finally said to the sink. “I should have been there, putting my life on the line to save her. Not you. That wasn’t your job. I should have been there to welcome her back. But I wasn’t. I gave up on her.”
“You didn’t,” said Lena. “You did everything you could to save her.”
Scrooge scoffed. “Loaves of bread on a tree stump!”
“And every penny you ever owned! And the Sunchaser – you were willing to give up your livelihood for her, for the second time!”
“Fat lot of good that did.”
“Uncle Scrooge, you gave everything you had.” Lena came right up behind him. “It’s time to stop blaming yourself for it not being enough. Stop blaming, and start building.”
Scrooge shook his head, starting to walk away from her across the diner. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, girl.”
“I know how it is to fail your family, Scrooge!” Lena called after him – and her outburst made him stop and look back, as she continued, “I know how it is to do everything you could for her, to give everything you had, and it still wasn’t enough, and she’s the one who paid the price for it. I know how it is to lose your family!”
Lena’s voice cracked on the last word, and she had to look down for a moment, collecting herself.
“And mine… And mine can never come back,” she said to the floor. Then she looked up at Scrooge again, pointing a hand towards the back door. “But your girl is out there.”
Scrooge just stared at her, his expression inscrutable. Lena let her hand drop, turned away, and walked upstairs to go to bed.
Scrooge stood alone in the Sunchaser Grill. The night was only getting darker as he stood there, thinking, as he had been doing for quite some time.
Finally he walked to the back door, propping it open with a chair and switching on the porch light. Then he went back to the counter and pulled out an old lantern, which he lit and set down on a table at the center of the dark diner.
Scrooge sat down at the table, and waited. He didn’t take out a book or a checkbook, he didn’t even look at the clock; he just waited, hands folded on the table, casting small shadows in the lamplight.
At one point, the front door opened, and in stepped Donald, closely followed by his three teenage boys. Scrooge said nothing, and neither did any of them. They just came over to the table, where each pulled out a chair, and sat, and waited.
They waited there, as stars appeared in the sky, surrounding the newly-waning moon. They waited as the chirping of crickets became the loudest sound in Duckburg, with the occasional comment from an owl or soft whisper from the wind in the trees. They might very well have waited there all through the night until morning, and on to the end of the day once more.
Fortunately, that turned out not to be necessary.
The back porch steps creaked under an uncertain foot, and a figure appeared in the open doorway. The spacesuit was gone, each piece of it discarded somewhere in the woods over the course of the day, and with it the guilt of ever having put it on in the first place. All that was left was a light gray jumpsuit, sweaty and worn.
Della slowly walked across the diner to the table, pulling out the single remaining empty chair, right between Donald and Scrooge, and easing herself down into it with stiff limbs.
For a moment, everyone just sat there.
Then Donald abruptly pushed his chair back, falling forward out of it onto his knees, pressing his face into Della’s lap and sobbing. She put a tender hand on his head. The three boys leapt to their feet as well, hurrying around the table, stumbling over each other in their rush to touch her, to hug her, to get some small contact to make up for a lifetime without their mother. She let them embrace her, tilting her head to the side and resting it on top of Dewey’s, tears leaking out from beneath her closed eyelids.
Scrooge sat there, watching them, until one of Donald’s arms snaked out from between Huey and Louie and grabbed Scrooge by the arm of his jacket, pulling him down out of his seat and into the long-overdue group hug.
And Scrooge McDuck couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried, but he did so now.
Chapter 15: Finale
In which there is a happy ending.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dear Mr. McDuck,
I’ve grown tired of the city. This just isn’t the life for me anymore, and I’m not sure it ever was. I long for a better place, with neighbors who really, truly care about each other.
“I should think Scrooge would be willing to have more than just those two girls sit in on the announcement,” Gyro sniffed as he and Fenton walked back up Main Street, having been turned away from the Grill after turning in their favorite essays. “After all, we’re all going to have to live with whoever he chooses.”
“I’m sure Webby and Lena will tell everyone all about it as soon as they know,” Fenton said.
“Hm.” Gyro shrugged and changed the subject. “From what I’ve heard people say, you proved yourself pretty handy with technology, during that whole portal-to-the-moon mess.”
A “mess” was the briefest possible way to describe the event so big that not even Gyro could exaggerate its impact: the sudden return of Della Duck one week previous.
“Oh, um, I guess so!” said Fenton. “I mean, I did study robotics. And a lot of other things. I just haven’t had any reason to use it in, well, a long time.”
“I know. Neither have I.” Gyro looked thoughtful for a moment. “I’ve been considering what your mother… what Officer Cabrera said, about fixing people’s problems. And if I know the McDuck family, Duckburg may be in for a hurricane of problems, now that the gang’s back together.
“I could use your…” Gyro took his time coming up with the most accurate word. “…assistance, with an innovation. Something I’ve been working on that will better not only Duckburg, but all of mankind, both literally and figuratively.”
Fenton’s eyes were wide. “You want us to work together?” he said. “On inventions? You mean like… as your lab partner?”
“Let’s start with ‘intern,’ and go from there.”
Gyro pulled a little notebook out of his pocket, turning it to a page with some rough schematics and passing it to Fenton.
“I call it, ‘Project Blatherskite.’”
Dear Mr. McDuck,
My whole life, I’ve been a wanderer. My parents never kept me anywhere longer than a year, always moving around to find work, and when I grew up, I just kept on wandering. I thought I was destined to roam until the day I died. But in someplace like Duckburg, I’d know I was finally home.
“From me and the boys,” Donald said, handing over the small stack of papers. “I’m not sure if any of them will win the blue ribbon, but they’re the best of what we read.”
“Thanks, Donald.” Lena kept the stack folded in her hands. “I’ll give it to Scrooge. He says he wants to talk to just us girls.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Donald. “The old man keeps his cards close to his chest. Just how he is, I suppose, for better or worse.”
Lena nodded. “How are things at home? I haven’t seen much of you this week.”
Donald grinned, a twinkle in his eyes. “Stranger than ever, and a hundred times better. By the way – I think I’ve finally finished that boat!”
“Huh. Congrats. Are you gonna take the boys and head out to sea, then, like you said?”
“I might!” Donald laughed. “But only to escape winter for a bit – I’ve had more than enough of living through those Wisconsin snowstorms. We’ll be back by spring, for sure. But Della and I have been talking, and we think it’s high time those boys got to experience a McDuck family adventure. Trouble’s in their blood, whether I like it or not, and we ought to teach them how to get into trouble responsibly. If we don’t, then Uncle Scrooge might, and then where will we be?”
“God only knows,” said Lena. “So, who’s going to keep an eye on Duckburg’s crime rate while you’re gone? Not Launchpad.”
Donald held up a finger. “There’s hope for him yet. Mrs. Cabrera’s offered to rejoin the force in an educational capacity. And if there’s anyone who can whip Launchpad into sheriff shape, it’s Officer Cabrera.”
Lena shook her head. “Well. This should be interesting.”
“I get the feeling everything’s going to be interesting from here on out,” said Donald. “And that isn’t something I ever thought I’d say about Duckburg.”
Dear Mr. McDuck,
There’s just me and my wife. Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about the future. What we’d really like to do is raise a family, and get started with the rest of our life, filling it with love and good, hard work. It sounds like we’d be able to do that in Duckburg.
“Uncle Scrooge!” Lena called, peering up the stairs into the dark hallway above. “Hey, Scrooge!”
“He’s not here yet,” Webby said, coming out of the kitchen.
“Ugh!” Lena sat down in one of the tall diner chairs. “I can’t wait. Look at me, I’m shaking! Aren’t you excited?”
“Yeah, I am! But one of us has to stay calm here.” Webby hopped up onto the chair next to Lena, taking one of those shaking hands and holding it still. Her pink-and-blue friendship bracelet slid down her arm to bump up against the matching one tied around Lena’s wrist.
“Read me your favorite, while we wait,” said Webby.
“Okay.” Lena reached back with her free hand and took one of the papers out of the small pile on the counter.
“Scrooge might disqualify it, ’cause it technically isn’t an essay,” she said, “but I liked it the most, so there.”
“Go on,” said Webby.
Lena held up the paper and read aloud: “‘Dear Mr. McDuck… There’s something that I’ve never seen: / A giant stretch of evergreen, / A golden valley shining down below, / And me just standing on the hill. / I dream I’ll find it at the Grill, / But if I’m dreaming, I don’t want to know…’”
Webby leaned over, pressing a soft kiss to Lena’s cheek. “That’s so sweet.”
Lena set the paper down, and put her hand on the back of Webby’s head, leaning forward until their foreheads rested against each other’s. They sat there, eyes closed, breathing the same air and enjoying that feeling of peace that was quickly becoming familiar.
They had talked some about the little house on Copper Creek over the past few days, but in a light, hypothetical kind of way. Webby had admitted that marriage had been a big bomb to drop all at once, when they hadn’t even known each other for a year – the anniversary of Lena’s arrival in Duckburg was still a few months away. Lena knew that she should be thinking more seriously about just where she was supposed to live once Scrooge sold the Grill, since this really was the only guest room in town, but so far it had been easier to push the thought aside as something to figure out later. Though Beakley’s attitude towards her had warmed considerably since Della’s return, Lena couldn’t quite imagine herself living comfortably under the same roof as the stern ex-bodyguard.
“Oh,” Webby said, leaning away again, though her hands were still holding Lena’s. “Before I forget again – I told Granny, about me applying to flight school.”
Lena raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“And she said that we have a lot of options to consider and discuss,” Webby said. “Schools closer to Duckburg, or programs that would allow me to take some of the courses online – so I wouldn’t have to go away for so long, but I could still become a pilot.” Webby squeezed Lena’s hand. “She said she’d help me do the research and find the best way for me to follow my dream!”
Lena exhaled. “Hell yes. Webby, that’s great!”
Webby giggled. “So, add that to the list of things to be excited about today.”
“Definitely. We should celebrate, with everyone. Only, make sure Scrooge leaves the scotch in the cellar.” Lena shuddered a bit at the memory of the taste.
“Oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad!” said Webby.
“The heck are your taste buds made of, Pink?” Lena teased.
At that moment, the front door swung open, and in came Scrooge, practically whistling as he walked, he looked so pleased with himself. In one hand he held a rolled-up newspaper.
“Uncle Scrooge!” Lena said, waving a hand over the essays on the counter. “We’ve got all the finalists here, except for yours.”
“Should we read them out loud?” Webby said, bouncing a little in her seat. “Or put them all in a big cooking pot and pick one out? Or put a target on the floor and toss them in the air and let the winds of fate decide?!”
“None of that will be necessary,” Scrooge said, walking behind the counter.
“Why?” said Lena, she and Webby rotating the diner chairs around to face him.
Scrooge smirked at them. “I’m sending all the money back!”
Lena blinked. “Sending it back? You? Sending money back.”
“Why?” said Webby. “Are you going to keep the Sunchaser?”
Scrooge snorted. “Tatter me tartans, I’ll be too busy to run a grill while I’m taking care of my family! I’ve got adventures to plan, and I have to check just how seaworthy my nephew’s boat actually is…”
“Then why are you calling off the raffle?” said Webby.
“You couldn’t pick an essay?” said Lena.
Scrooge smoothed out the newspaper on the counter. “Oh, I picked a winner,” he said. “The problem is, I picked an essay that doesn’t qualify for the contest.”
Lena shook her head. “What are you going on about, old man?”
Scrooge cleared his throat, and read aloud: “‘Just picture it – you look out from your front porch, as the sun sets at the end of another day here in Duckburg…’”
Webby leaned over to look at what he was reading. “But… that’s our ad!” she exclaimed.
“And they’re the best words ever written about the Grill,” Scrooge said. “Curse me kilts, girls, you don’t think I’m going to give the Sunchaser to the second best?”
He took a battered old keyring out of his pocket and slapped it onto the counter between them.
“Here’s the keys,” he said. “I’ve never used them, so I don’t even know if they work. But they’re yours.”
Lena picked up the keys, holding them between her fingers like a foreign object. “O-Ours?!” she stammered.
Scrooge nodded. “Yours. Oh, this old Grill might not be much, but it’s home. And that’s the least I can give back to my girls!”
Webby practically climbed up onto the counter so she could reach Scrooge, squealing with glee as she wrapped her arms around him in a hug.
Lena closed her fingers around the keys, and she put the closed fist to her chest. And all at once it hit her that she was here to stay, and she began to cry. And then Webby was back in front of her, kissing her first on the forehead and then on the beak, and then she threw her arms around Lena’s neck, and Scrooge had a hand on each of their shoulders, and their limbs were good, strong roots that reached so deep into the earth that nothing could ever pull them away, and Lena knew that she was home at last.
And here we are, less than two weeks later... I can't remember the last time a fic just rushed out of me like this, complete and whole, and certainly not one that I still enjoyed reading the chapters over again once I'd posted them. But like I've said in my replies to some of your lovely comments, this is a story that has meant a lot to me for a while, featuring characters who have very recently grown to mean a lot to me as well, and they clicked together in the most beautiful way.
In case you're wondering about the chapter titles, and all the unlabeled YouTube links at the start of each chapter - those are the tracks of the musical "The Spitfire Grill," which I used as a structure for this work. I highly recommend looking into the musical; it's a lovely show that doesn't get much attention. "The Colors of Paradise" has been my second-favorite showtune since I first heard it a few years ago. The film it's based on, which came out in the 90s and also doesn't get much attention, is worth a watch as well - though I should warn you, it is a VERY sad movie. Though both versions of the story influenced the plot of this fic pretty evenly throughout, I'm a sucker for happy endings, so in the last two chapters here, I drew a lot more from the musical than the movie.
Of course, there are some things here that you would only find in Duckburg, and not in Gilead - space travel, for instance, and lesbian romance. I didn't see the point of forcing one of the Duck Twins off to war when there was a perfectly good in-universe tragedy to use instead. And I've always thought that Percy and Shelby (Lena and Webby's equivalent characters) deserved each other MUCH more than the male love interests the film and musical give them. And if you've read any of my other DuckTales fics, then you already know that my heart belongs to Weblena.
One final behind-the-scenes note (though I'll happily ramble on about my writing process if you leave me comments and questions to reply to): with the exception of Launchpad and the triplets, who are in this fic only as themselves, I began this story intending for each of the DuckTales characters to have a specific equivalent Spitfire Grill character. But their own personalities were so strong that they ended up fighting over who exactly got to do what. Poor Joe, who already had enough identity issues with the differences between his role in the film and in the musical, got split up between Donald, Webby, and Fenton. And Donald surprised me by snatching some of Caleb's moments away from Beakley. And I had the distinct impression one night of Officer Cabrera looking up from her television, calling me a little chicken, and telling me EXACTLY the role she wanted to have in this story. And somehow Gyro snuck in Gizmoduck there at the end; I really didn't mean for that to happen.
I can't pretend to control these characters. I only serve them. And I hope that they (and you, dear reader, to whom I owe a million thanks) are as pleased with the results as I am.