It is 1994. Duck has to keep telling himself that; without school making him date every scrap of paper it's easy to forget what day it is, let alone what year, especially when (last he wrote that kind of thing down) it was 1989.
It's easier to focus the fact rather than what it means; once Duck starts thinking about the space between the numbers he gets lost. He missed the start of the decade. In lieu of anything else to do, he fixates on that. Driver's ed, voting for the first time, prom— Okay, he probably would've done that anyway, but it would be his choice.
No, focus. It is 1994. The strip mall he went to last week is largely vacant storefronts, and he doesn't recognize any of the faces he sees flipping through the television. He'd think it was a dream if everything else weren't so goddamn normal, like he's in the twilight zone.
A flickering, blue face, talking about terminators: the line between night and day that circles the planet. Something about an observer on such a body, light scatter, radio waves, but the point is it is dusk inside. "The twilight zone is real, Duck Newton. You live in it every day."
Duck shakes his head, catching his reflection doing the same in a patch of mirror wiped clean of shower fog. Right, that's where he was: wondering how he ended up with this face rather than the one he thought he'd be stuck with for a while still. Despite everything, it's him, but—
Maybe that's what's uncanny. It's not his face that's changed but what's attached to it. He sees himself and thinks, "Yeah, that's Duck," while knowing it's not really his first thought and isn't ever anyone else's. For better or worse only he sees it (though it's usually just the latter).
He watches rivulets of condensation cut through his reflection for a minute longer. It looks like rain going down the mirror, an endless stream of water running over the surface, and Duck puts his hand to the glass and the water is on the other side, it must be, so—
But no. He blinks. It's gone. It was never there.
For a week Duck wanders the house like a ghost, bumping into furniture he didn't know had moved. His parents find it easier to pretend he never existed than to accept that he isn't the daughter they remembered losing five years ago, which is fine, but Duck wanted someone to acknowledge that yes, he'd been missing, but he was finally home.
He wouldn't know where to start, though. One minute: he's walking home from school, glaring at a letter home. The next: he trips on an invisible ledge, falling into black space that gleams almost indigo where the light comes in. And then: he's face-down in a puddle on the same sidewalk, twenty years old in another dreary West Virginian spring afternoon.
Some things never change, Duck guesses. He'd hoped they might—that having a piece gouged out of his life might be worth it if it led to even one person reconsidering how they treated him—but no, just his luck, the only thing he wished would change was the one that didn't.
They probably assumed he ran away.
(He wouldn't blame them. It's a fair assumption.)
Something is wrong. No matter how much they all pretend nothing happened (that they were nightmares, not memories) Duck feels off, always a few figurative inches to left of where he should be. He turns around too quickly, expecting resistance he never finds; his other reflexes are just as unnatural. Sometimes he takes a step and is surprised to have moved. Sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night and feels (with no point of reference) like he's floating, suspended in something he can't see. Sometimes he doesn't feel anything at all.
He takes to lurking. He feels like an invalid, a shut-in, the crazy cousin everyone pretends is locked away in an attic somewhere. Whatever the metaphor, the longer he stays in that house, the more he feels as though there's nothing else outside of it, a prospect somehow worse than any cognitive dissonance he may get in the outside. So he lurks.
He can't help looking out for any familiar face, someone, anyone, and he does find just the one: Juno. There were only two people Duck had missed, his baby sister Jane and Juno, who had always taken him seriously, which is enough to cement her as Duck's best friend.
(Jane is another story. Jane is almost his age—or at least, what he thought his age was—no longer the baby he'd been excited to help grow up. She's catching up to him, and in that way she's left him in the dust.)
It's only a matter of time before his feet take him to the Devine house. He's working up the nerve to ring the bell when the clatter of metal on asphalt stops him. There's Juno, the only person to ever really listen to him, looking like she's seen a ghost.
"That's me." Duck waves awkwardly as Juno leaps over her fallen bike and sprints up the drive. When her full weight hits him he doesn't stumble, no matter how unexpected it is. She's not the kid he remembers, and neither is he, yet...
It's like all his atoms still recognize hers. Duck's been thinking about that (probably bullshit) factoid about all yours cells being entirely replaced every ten years—wondering which half of him it is remembers this life, which makes him alien to his own family—but right now it's like no part of him ever left.
After not long enough, Juno pulls back to look at him, her hands on his shoulders turning him back and forth. "God, Duck, you look tired. Have you slept at all the past five years?"
He shrugs, honestly not knowing. "Not since I got back, at least."
Juno frowns. "And how long's that been? Without so much as a phone call? What…" But she laughs without feeling, her reprimanding expression falling into quiet concern. "What happened, Duck? You dropped off the face of the Earth."
"Yeah." Duck rubs the back of his neck but doesn't know how to continue. It's not just the guilt, or the impossibility of lying to her: something about it rings too true.
Juno seems to become aware of herself and steps back into a more polite distance. "Your parents said they sent you away to boarding school, in Colorado. I'll be honest, I believed it, though I thought it was cuz of the whole…"
He doesn't need her to finish. "I wouldn't blame you."
"What really happened? You never came home in the summer, never called or wrote or..."
"Juno, could we...?" Words are pushing at his lips, words even he doesn't know he believes yet, and he suddenly feels overexposed standing in the front yard.
The moment pops like a soap bubble. She says, "Aw yeah, sorry, hang on," and grabs her bike before heading toward the garage. "Come on back."
Juno's shed has faded since Duck saw it last. The grass around it is tall, taller than the Juno he'd known would ever let it get, the thin stalks of bluestem plastered to the siding by the morning's rain. Duck can't help but remember every gouge and stain on the floor, every contraband bottle of nail polish on the shelf with the kit radio. He almost can't go any further, the remembering making his head hurt as well as his heart, but then Juno opens the door and they clamber in, crouching to avoid the low ceiling and sitting on the floor. There are more gouges, some damp, and no new stains. It's—
A small space: darkness, and the voice telling him to wake up. Duck is curled up his side but he can't feel the ground, can't feel anything for some reason. The light that makes it through his eyelids is snowcone blue.
"What happened?" Juno says, too subdued to really be a question.
Duck tells it as plainly as he can, continuing through her growing confusion. He only tells her what he knows for certain, though, leaving out the nightmares and bumps in the night.
"And you don't remember anything in between? Where you went, what you did?" She frowns. "You got some kind of amnesia?"
"I..." Duck shuts his eyes, the light now reassuringly pink. "You'll think it's crazy."
"Long as you don't say aliens did it," she laughs, "I think any answer's better than none."
"I mean..." When Duck trails off, Juno's eyebrows shoot up. "Look, it— I remember tripping, but there was some kinda light and someone was talking about I don't know what, in a language I've never heard, and then I hit the ground."
Juno blinks in bewilderment. "Duck, are you serious right now? Cuz if you're saying you think you were abducted by aliens—"
"I didn't say aliens—"
"That's sure how it sounds though."
Duck goes to argue back, but her expression is so... nonjudgmental. He remembers now why he liked Juno. If you came to her with something in good faith, she'd always meet you there.
After a long pause, she sighs and says, "There was a light?"
That moment, that breath in, is the kindest thing anyone's ever done for Duck. He's not a big crier but that alone almost breaks him. "Yeah, except it was like jelly maybe? Or like water inside, like a big blue tank—"
"Like Star Wars?"
He smiles. "Yeah, kinda like Star Wars. But like a water balloon, it was liquid inside and then like a stretchy... thing keeping everything in."
Duck knows anyone else would've had him committed right then and there, but Juno doesn't move, so he tells her everything he can. In a flood of approximations, Duck stumbles around the feeling of fighting to swing his arms out, of breathing in water but never drowning. Juno takes it in, she nods, and when he has nothing left, she offers to walk him home.
After a few blocks, Juno starts, "I know we weren't that close of friends..."
"That doesn't matter." Duck stops both the conversation and their walking to put a hand on her shoulder. "You listened to me then, and you're listening to me now. That's what counts."
"Duck, if you really… I mean, you were alone that whole time?" She frowns when he nods, and then her arms reach out to hug him, and his nerve endings are sparked awake after a long hibernation. The sun stares down amidst flat, grey clouds.
Duck is having a dream.
He's in a pool somewhere. With the lights on, the water looks unnaturally blue. It's not quite water, though, it's too thick for that. He can move and breathe in it, which he accepts as dream logic, and when he hears the crystal clear voice, he accepts that too.
It's talking about Sun Tzu and World War II, albeit incorrectly. Duck isn't the brightest bulb on the tree, he knows, but he's pretty sure there weren't any continents ravaged by viruses. Which... no, that's right. The names are too unfamiliar—they slide out of his mind like oil on water—so he's been mentally substituting in terms he knows.
Duck Newton, remember this. It is vital to the fate of the world that you understand.
He wakes to the sound of thunder and watches his window until the sun comes up.
Juno calls every day. She's going to school in Morgantown now, and Duck finds comfort in the familiar sound of the phone ringing with a bad Bugs Bunny impression ("What's up, Duck?") on the other end. She always has some gossip about someone he’s never heard of ("Sarah Drake, she moved here about sophomore year, anyway, she's got some fancy government job so I know she knows something about aliens—") or could vaguely picture ("And Vicky, you know Vicky? She got married last year, which is insane, someone we know, married.") but never anyone he could miss.
She talks about her job. She talks about school. She talks about meaningless shit she sees in the news, how her parents' flooded basement is coming along, dumb stuff they did as kids. She doesn't ask about Jane, who's friends with Juno's youngest brother and is at their house a lot.
A part of him flinches whenever he remembers that particular fact, like a muscle that was pulled years ago but still twitches every time you stand. The silence from Jane has been worse than that from his parents; whereas Duck is pretty used to their silent willingness to pretend nothing is happening (albeit never to this degree), Jane's is more wary. Duck is a stranger, after all. He doesn't blame her, he just wishes things were different.
Either way, staying inside isn't so poor a prospect now that Juno is calling all the time, which is good as the weather's gotten awful. Duck swears thunder's gotten louder since he got back, rain heavier; he didn't remember storms being this strong, but every night wind threatens to rip the house off its foundations. (Sometimes he hears another sound in the midst of all that storming—something less measured and more chaotic. That's probably thunder too, Duck keeps telling himself.)
"So what're we gonna do?"
"Do about what?"
Juno rolls her eyes, leaning against Duck's desk with her laptop of notes. She'd spent all her free time the past week looking for anything credible about alien abductions and so on. She hadn't told Duck because she knew how he'd react, which is how he is: with extreme frustration.
"Duck, you gotta—"
"I don't 'gotta' anything. I just wanna go back to my life as best I can, alright? I don't want anything more to do with the supernatural or extraterrestrial or whatever."
"But that's just it!" Juno gestures at the screen. "Don't you want to know what happened?"
"No, Juno, I really don't." He deflates with each word until the end comes out on a sigh.
Juno stands and walks slowly over to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Duck..."
Blue light fills the room. Duck almost thinks it's another memory, but between Juno's gasp and the familiar furniture of his childhood bedroom negate that. So the huge, bald, warrior-like man in front of him is real, alright, and he's speaking, alright, and this is happening, and all the rest was... real.
"Duck Newton," the figure before them booms in the voice Duck never wanted to hear again, "you have been chosen to fulfill a fate of cosmic importance. There are monsters at your door and only you can beat them back. We have taken great pains to prepare you for this moment, using our training simulators to insure that you will be at your peak form in time for the supernatural threat that imperils your world."
Duck looks back over his shoulder at Juno, who shrugs. "Yeah, I... I got plans tomorrow."
The figure's determined expression falters momentarily. "Duck Newton, you have destiny tomorrow, and every day after."
"Yeah well I—"
"What the hell!" Juno blinkers back into consciousness. "You're— You're real! Or maybe not? Are you a hologram?"
"I am not a hollow gram, Duck's compatriot," the figure frowns. "I am as real as—"
Another figure appears before them then, a tall woman with a shaved head and livid expression. When the first sees her, he stops, face hardening. Duck swears he sees fear in his eyes, but then the blue light of his body flickers, and the second figure speaks.
They stare at each other. The second figure, Minerva, doesn't notice Duck and Juno as she glares in disbelief at the familiar face.
"You saw the prophecies as well as I," Luther hastens to say. "Without extra training, there was no way the Chosen One would accept his fate in time—"
"This was not the plan," she says. "We were to wait until the appointed time and complete his training on Earth, not the pocket dimension. You went behind my back and—"
"Pocket dimension," Juno says under her breath. "That's what it was."
Minerva jerks at her voice and the anger in her face evaporates when she sees Duck, her form flickering briefly.
"Duck Newton, I... am so sorry. This is not how this was meant to go. The wormhole, the training, the destiny, yes, but... You were never supposed to be taken from your home ."
Her voice breaks on the final word, glancing again at Luther. Though neither is physically in the room, their silence is still palpable, heavy with the decades of history hanging in it.
"Look, honestly, I don't care whatever it is y'all did," Duck interrupts. "I mean, it sucks missing a bunch of my childhood, but fine, I can deal so long as you leave me alone. Stop it with the dreams, the hallucinations, the crazy storms, whatever else you're doing, and we're be even."
"The...?" Luther frowns, turning to Minerva. "Have you been sending portents?"
Minerva frowns back at him. "I didn't know about this until five minutes ago, how could I have been sending out a series of thematic omens for a week already?"
There is a dull thud downstairs like something heavy and made of glass landing on a rug, and the air is sucked out of the room.
"Is it...?" Juno's question hangs in the silence.
"They're out of town for the week. Spring break," Duck says distantly, eyes trained on the door. Another thunk comes from the floorboards, now metallic and echoey, then a new sound: thick splatters of rain thrown suddenly at the windows.
Without looking away from the door, Duck moves to grab the baseball bat by his dresser. The other three watch—Juno bewildered, Luther still angry at Minerva, and Minerva with a reserved, growing hope. Another thunk comes up against the floor, now in the hall. There's a muffled explosion and then the wet creak of wood, drawn on far too long for something so slow.
Juno winces. "You got, uh...?"
Duck points her to the closet, where she starts rummaging around. As she's examining an old umbrella's metal tip, Minerva's image flickers out and then back into existence next to Duck.
"Duck Newton, I know this is all very sudden—"
Water creeps under the door, an unnatural orange-ish color in the lamplight. "Nah, I get it."
"I had been hoping during your training we would grow to be comrades in arms and I wish that we had time for that—"
Duck finally looks away from the door. Despite the staticky quality of her projection, her eyes are so clear it's hard to imagine she isn't physically in the room. As Juno comes to stand a few feet behind Duck with her umbrella, he says, "I know."
Another thunk comes at the door this time, the wood and water both shaking, and then nothing, not even the rain. One hand tightening on his bat, Duck rests the other on the doorknob. This close to the door he can hear something else, something wet skittering along the floor.
He swings open the door. Though the rain returns, it's still not loud enough to drown out the wet roar of what lies on the other side.