Duck Newton didn’t expect to see Minerva in his car.
(Minerva didn’t expect to see Duck like this, either.)
Maybe it was wishful thinking on his part, stupid to even hope, but some part of him really wanted it to be restricted to his house, his bed. Some part of him really thought she wouldn’t find him out on the edge of the woods, in some crummy hand-me-down pile of rust taking a vehicular shape. But it didn’t matter what he thought about it, anyway, because one minute he was listening to his mixtape ‘n’ drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, looking out at the Monongahela, and the next--
“Duck New -ton?”
“Aw, shit, ” he babbled, voice slurring as he attempted to kick the bottle of whiskey he’d snagged from Pa’s stash under the seat. His eyes were bleary by this point anyway, and it was hard to see much in the moonlight, but somethin’ about a blue ‘n’ glowin’ (possibly computers) lady stuck out like a sore thumb in the backseat. She always lacked the stuff necessary for a face ‘cept the mouth, ‘n’ yet she was so expressive back there. He blinked at her dumbly from the front seat. “Not ‘gain. ”
“Am I interrupting anything important?”
“Yeah,” he lied, too drunk to elaborate but not so drunk he couldn’t get away with it. “Y’are. Do me a favor, Min… ...Minerv… ...Minnie, ‘n’ get lost, okay? Just tryin’ to find a moment’s peace for Chrissake.”
“Ah,” she said after a moment. It was stupid the way Duck could tell something without any real facial features was thinking, contemplative. Shouldn’t’ve worked. Then again, hell--he shouldn’t’ve been talkin’ to some glowy future-lady as it was. There were a lot of things about Duck’s life at this point in time that were decidedly and righteously fucked, so to speak, and he didn’t want to think about ‘em right now. That was the problem. “I see. Well, I can certainly sympathize with the need for that, Duck Newton. But I admit your conduct concerns me!”
Duck snorted, too genuinely, before he could really think about it and censor himself. Fuck, he was pretty faded. “My conduct? Dunno if you’ve noticed, Minnie, but that ain’t ‘xactly my strong suit. What’re you, some um… ...some um… ...fuckin’ alien Emily Post’re what?”
Again, she considered this with her usual seriousness and zeal. He could’ve rolled his eyes. “While I admit to being unfamiliar with this ‘Emily Post,’” she started, “and many things of your world are unfamiliar and strange to me, I don’t think I’m being off base when I say I have a right to be worried. I haven’t heard from you lately, Duck Newton! Have you been practicing?” She leaned forward in the backseat like that was possible, beaming. “I like to give you enough time to catch up, but--”
Inelegantly, he scoffed. “Pfft. ‘Practicing. ’ Practicing what, exactly?”
“Why, fulfilling your destiny, Duck Newton, of course!”
“‘f course,” he scowled and couldn’t help himself, crossing his arms. “‘S all you ever talk about, the destiny bullshit.”
Minerva regarded him strictly from the backseat. “Well, it’s very important, I will say that. But while it is something to discuss frequently, I wouldn’t be averse to discussing whatever you wish! After all, we are in this together. Is there anything you wish to talk about with me? I respect that you… ...may be under the influence of something from your world, but if you just need an ear or a shoulder--”
“‘Under the influence,’” he drawled, leaning back in his seat a little and letting Soundgarden play. “When ‘m I not.”
He realized, from glancing in the rearview mirror, that she looked awkward now. It was a new look for Minerva, usually so confident and bold and unabashed where he was always self-conscious and shameful, and he was so intrigued by it that he kept one eye cracked open. When she spoke again, she was looking down at her hands and wringing them in her lap. “I confess that’s what worries me the most, Duck,” she let him know. “At first I thought these were merely--merely Earthen past times and average for a boy of your age, but they are becoming… ...less infrequent. And should you continue the pattern, I--well, I fear you could get hurt. Becoming a warrior is such vital work, and should you continue to evade not only your destiny, but your very immediate surroundings--”
“Fuck off, ” he growled suddenly. It came up and out of his throat like a wild thing.
She looked surprised. “What?”
“I said,” he snarled again, “fuck off, Minerva. You show up every once ‘n’ awhile ‘n’ compl ’tly uproot my--my life ‘n’ you wonder why I try so hard to escape? You put th’ respons’bl--resp--burden of a whole worl’ on my shoulders ‘n’ then you won’er why I’m stressed? You don’t get the right to do that. You lost that the min’te you heaped all this on me.”
“Duck Newton,” she tried again, “I beg of you to listen to me, please. I know what it is like to wish so much things weren’t happening, that they were different, but you and I have found one another for a reason! I know it is so much to handle, but--”
“No,” he tried, “you don’t. ”
“Yes,” she dared to counteract, “I do!! No one chooses a life of war and violence, Duck Newton! These things are thrust upon us! And it is our sworn duty to throw our personal fears and reservations aside and fight, do you understand me? No one enjoys this! It’s not supposed to be ‘fun’ like one of your Earth games! This is serious, and it's high time you started to take it--”
“Stop,” he said, and his voice was softer than he wanted it to be. “Please.”
Mercifully, the woman went relatively quiet, stopping in her tirade immediately. It took a moment of horrible, aching silence, the kind that seemed to last an eternity. “Duck Newton,” she finally asked, her voice conveying bewilderment that he didn’t want to think about, “are you… ...crying?”
“No,” he lied, and this time it was a shitty lie, just like most of his lies. “Fuckin’ allergies. ‘S the forest. The pollen.” He wiped his tears on his sleeve, but they kept coming back, and he realized with disgust that his voice was hitching with sobs and he was curled up in the seat like it would protect him from the world. “Dunno why I keep comin’ back t’this place.”
“You love it, don’t you,” she noted. Her projection was in the front seat beside him now, which would’ve startled him if he could’ve given a single shit. “That is one habit, at least, that makes sense to me. From what I know of your world, there are portions of it that are very beautiful indeed. That is… ...certainly something to treasure.”
For a moment, he had nothing to say. Was time to light up ‘n’ let all the worries fade away with the smoke, on the wind, and stare up at the sky teeming with stars. He’d never know the names of all of ‘em; that was one area of nature he didn’t really understand, and it was beyond him how much you had to know about computers ‘n’ all that science-y stuff to get anywhere close. But it was a nice sky, and a night filled with moonlight and the sound of crickets.
It took a beat; the thoughts came rushing in.
Then the feelings.
“I get it,” he mumbled, still all elbows and knees and trying to bury himself in ‘em. “You don’t have to say anything, okay? I’m a huge disappointment ‘n’ failure ‘n’ that’s--that’s exactly why you should pick someone else. Don’t worry; it’s not a surprise to me or nothin’. Tell me somethin’ I don’t know.” He laughed, but there was nothing funny about it.
“Who has made you feel this way?” She was well-meaning, which made it even worse. “You should never allow anyone to make you feel inferior, Duck Newton, no matter what the circumstance--”
“It’s my dad, okay?” The words came tumbling out before he could think about them. He immediately wanted to hide away forever. “Look, never mind, it’s uh--it’s no big deal, okay? Let’s just drop it.”
“Isn’t your father aware of your vast importance?”
When the boy laughed next, it was bitter and clumsy like a mouthful of dirt. All he’d ever taste. “ Hah, ” he rambled, almost unable to stop himself from sharing too much. Fucking whiskey made his lips too loose and combined with the weed he was havin’ a hell of a time not sharing his whole life’s story. “You oughta ask ‘im yourself. I dunno. I ain’t livin’ with him ‘nymore.”
“My mistake,” she said earnestly, trying to soften. “And your mother…?”
“They kicked me out, Minnie,” he finally said, and blissfully when it finally came out it was with a flat and even tone. A fact of life, same as the green of the grass ‘n’ the way the leaves turned colors and then died certain times of year. Casual and no big deal.
“What?” Her shock almost hurt worse than anything else.
Duck replied with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “Yeah,” he finally found himself saying, getting lost in the haze enough to be comfortable with what was going on. “'m livin' in my car. Grades kept… ...y’know, goin’ down. ‘cuz ‘m an unmotivated li’l shit. Pa said I was a bad influence on Jane ‘n’ a disgrace, it… ...it’s been building for a long time. Lotta things they don’t like about me, I guess.”
It took a moment. “I am so sorry, Duck Newton. Truly, I am.”
“Eh,” he muttered, shrugging his shoulders and trying not to look at the sympathy on her face. “‘S fine. We’re all born to die, anyway. Me, you prob’ly if you’re not some immortal thing, Jane, Ma, Pa. Everybody I’ve ever cared about or will care about, y’know? ‘sn’t matter in the end, on account of we’re all doomed. No point.”
Minerva was quiet beside him. “I respect your feelings, Duck Newton,” she assured him, “but I do not share them.”
“Yeah, well,” he sighed, “your world’s lucky to have you, Minnie. ‘S different. If the future depends on me, trust me. We’re in bad shape.” The combo of the weed ‘n’ booze was working its magic now, and he could finally relax enough to lean the seat back ‘n’ close his eyes, cracking one open to get a good view of the night around him.
“I don’t believe that,” she murmured, softest he’d ever heard her.
“Then you don’t know me very well.”
“We are not born to die,” she reassured him, and he realized her voice was soft and understanding and kind now. “A book doesn’t begin just to finish, Duck Newton… ...a song doesn’t open with a beautiful chord just to end. Yes, we are born with the inevitable fate of death; we are mortal, after all. But that is merely the finale of the play, and we are not born to take a bow and exit stage left.”
“ No, ” she reinforced a little more emphatically. He was on the cusp of drowsing but she kept him awake, a mass of incomprehensible blue light beside him feeling things to the brim. “We are born to love. To be joyous and yell and move and learn and--and yes, even to cry --and feel, feel, feel. Don’t you see, you silly boy? We are born to live. ”
“Y’think so?” He was yawning now.
“I know so, Duck Newton,” she told him as firmly and surely as anyone had told him anything. The boy couldn’t see her anymore, not really; he only had the thought of her in his mind, the dream of her half-there in the place between awake and asleep. “And I will tell you something else. I know very many things about you, but if there’s one thing I know, you’re good at that.”
“Oh, yes, Duck Newton. You are terrifically, wholly, wonderfully, splendidly alive. I sense it in every word you speak, every song you hear, everything you feel. Please, keep doing all of it. It’s… ...it’s highly important.”
“M’n’kay, weirdo,” he drawled, too half-asleep now to treat her as anything other than familiar. “I’ll, um… I’ll get right on that. In the… ...in the mornin’.”
“Good. You’re doing so well that you have earned a rest, anyway.” There was a smile in her voice. “Goodnight for now, Duck Newton. I will be back to check on you. Remember that I am so proud of you always.”
“‘Night, Minnie,” he managed.
The last thing he felt before he slept was a soft hand, reaching up and brushing hair out of his face.