Duck Newton had had enough. He went back to his apartment, drew a bath, loaded his pipe and hotboxed his bathroom. Landlords be damned. Leo was still in the hospital, and Duck was certain he could air out his place before Leo's homecoming.
Christ, pot was better now than in the 90s. Purple Diesel, Dutch Treat, Gelato -- all potent strains that didn’t take out a lung to smoke. Trainwreck was what Jake had recommended for Duck to take the edge off and calm down. Still, each pull took its toll, a relic of Duck’s teenage years where the more you coughed, the quicker you got high, the more points you could score in furniture store hockey.
Memories clouded him, filled with a soft, lemon-scented, pink fog.
And then his phone rang. He splashed an impressive amount of water onto the tiled floor and cursed, rummaging around for the source of the noise. Mama. He answered the phone in a heartbeat.
“Hey, Duck. It’s Aubrey. Couldn’t find my phone, so I’m using the office line.”
“Hey Aubrey. How are you holding up?” He softened his voice to a calming vibrato that was lilting from the drug.
“Not great. I miss him.”
“I know. It’s been hard.”
“Can you come to the lodge?”
He sucked in his bottom lip, the noise traveling through the air waves.
“Not to be pushy.”
“No, no, I’ll be there. Just, I’ll walk there.” As he said the words, he was thrilled. Walking alone in the woods while stoned out of his mind. He wanted nothing more. The privilege of being a white man and a chosen fighter of a war-happy alien. But right now, he was already fumbling to put on his boots. “Be there in an hour.”
“Want some snacks?” Her voice took on a sing-song tenor.
He gulped “Is it that obvious?”
She paused, “I was talking to Dr. Harris Bonkers, PhD. But yes, it’s also clear that you’re high.”
“Alright, perfect, see you soon.” He packed some water, more weed and his phone and began the hike up to Amnesty Lodge.
When he got there, the light was still on in the main room, cleared out except for Jake and Aubrey who sat quietly next to each other, watching as Dr. Harris Bonkers hopped around the room, eating pieces of feed in the obstacle course Aubrey had set up.
Duck felt so high in that moment, but that feeling was brushed aside by Aubrey nearly tackling him in a hug. “Thanks for coming. I was feeling a little lonely.”
“It’s quieter. But gosh am I happy to trek out to see you. Because that’s the miracle of our survival.”
The two sat, and the group spoke in a low, constant murmur, catching up and talking about their feelings.
Jake said, “Lady Flame and I were just talking about smoking a bit.
Agent Stern heard the chatter and stepped into the room.
Aubrey started up a soft chant, “ACAB. ACAB. ACAB.”
Duck giggled a bit but was trying his absolute hardest not to let his bemusement show.
Agent Stern either didn’t hear her, didn’t get it or didn’t care because he walked straight up to the table where they sat. He was wearing a silk pajama suit and slippers, and he asked seriously, “Are we having a secret meeting?”
Duck nodded, “Meeting of the minds. Top secret.”
“Actually,” Aubrey smirked and pet Dr. Harris Bonkers, PhD. “Agent, we were going to do a little puff-puff-pass. Care to join?”
Jake walked back into the room at such an astoundingly good moment. He saw the gears turn in Stern’s head as he realized it was a drug thing then realized this was a serious offer.
“Come on, you work in cryptozoology. You never joined in with a group of Sasquatch hunters for a peace pipe,” Aubrey was enjoying herself so much making a federal agent squirm -- not with fear, not with deception but good old social anxiety.
Agent Stern looked at Duck, and everyone noted it was Duck’s face which made Stern say, “Sure. What can I lose?”
Jake Coolice answered, “Your job.”
Stern put his head in his hands, and pulled at his mouth to reveal a dry smile. “Don’t laugh, but I was raised Mormon, so my salvation is also on the line. Not to out myself as a stereotype.”
Aubrey began another chant, “Sinner squad. Sinner squad.”
Duck said evenly, “But no peer pressure. If you’re uncomfortable, take a break.”
The FBI agent sat next to Duck and effortlessly fluffed up his light brown hair, extenuating his handsomeness despite his silly and dated attire.
“Her mother is Strawberry Cough,” Jake expertly rolled a fat joint. He went into detail about how the Sylven influence had increased the potency of weed he grew around the area, and now, he was hoping the effects of Aubrey’s enchantment in the other world might increase even more the fertility of the Lodge’s grounds.
Aubrey took the first hit, and her eyes flashed, the yellow filled with sparkles. She let out a long exhale, “Jake, I’m gonna need you to never stop your magic.”
Seeing her otherworldly reaction, Agent Stern shifted nervously. Aubrey passed the joint to Jake who revelled in his success with a satisfied smirk. He too was almost immediately calmed.
Duck took a smaller hit just as a supplement for his high, and the taste in his mouth was one of the sweetest he had ever experienced. A hundred hot summer days with his dad going to the beach and eating ice cream flooded in. It was that warmth, misty air and relief of an island getaway. And Duck was so chill. “Jake, you’re amazing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Agent Stern psyched himself up and overdid it, coughing and hacking, Jake handing him a water and holding his hands over his head, “Hold up your arms. It opens up your lungs.”
Stern did as instructed, and Aubrey clapped, “Yay, you got a cop to put his hands up. Yay!” In her clapping, Dr. Harris Bonker escaped from any possible allegations of animal abuse to work on his research. He was so close.
After the coughing fit ended, Aubrey took another hit and said, “I don’t mean to be cruel, Stern. How is your first high?”
He shrugged, “I don’t think I feel it yet.” He waited for the joint to get back to him to take another hit. And he got so obsessed with talking about how totally not high he was that it became clear to everyone that he was stoned out of his mind.
Jake ashed the joint and said, “Stern, there was a moment I was convinced you were a bad dude.”
Stern took a deep inhale and said in a higher pitch than normal, “I feel the same way every waking moment about myself.”
Aubrey laughed, “Same.”
The group erupted into giggles.
“Miss Little, you were the one who tried to clue us in by the gate to that exact feeling. I thank you for that moment of clarity and empathy. You saved lives with that even if you felt ostracized in that moment.”
Aubrey wanted something more to smoke at that moment, but she took up her tic of lighting her palm then extinguishing the flame. “I’d rather not talk about that night and saving lives if it’s anyone but Ned.”
The group took a pause to remember him before that silence became the weed hazed silence that is almost impossible to break and creates its own isolated moment of space and time, everything freezing yet feeling eternal to those trapped within its grasp.
And yet, Duck stood -- a landmark achievement for stoners everywhere -- and retrieved a bottle cap, placing it on the table. “Ned and I used to play this. He would always beat me. He took a finger and flicked the bottle toward Jake Coolice who reflexively blocked the shot. The group got into a heated game of table soccer, breaking into teams: Aubrey and Jake versus Duck and Stern.
It was carnage. But the laughter and friendly banter had a distinct memory of Ned’s friendly and playful manner.
After scoring a third point, Duck high-fived Stern, and he noticed Stern’s eyes were on Duck whenever the game was paused.
A FBI agent was a dime a dozen for personality. The same individuality of a black SUV in Washington, DC. But Stern was different. Stern was empathetic and patient and courteous.
Fuck a duck, Duck had taken this long to realize he had a crush on the very handsome tenant of Amnesty Lodge.
But Aubrey interrupted their moment by shouting, “Best out of 10. Let’s go.”
Jake warmed up his hands, hopping around showily, and Stern served, Jake passing back to Aubrey who spiked back the puck with immense force. Duck tried to block it, but he wrenched back his hand, yelling in pain as the bottlecap burned his skin.
Jake and Aubrey showboated, their friendship tested and having beaten team sport activities, but Duck cursed over and over as his skin blistered. Aubrey noticed and put a hand to her mouth. “Duck, I’m so sorry.”
“Nope, it’s all good. Good game. I just need some cold water.” He went back to the kitchen, running cold water over the burn until it felt sufficiently soothed.
The door opened, and Stern stood there, letting the door swing shut behind him, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I should have expected that.”
“Now that I know magic is real, a long history of sporty failures can be chalked up to that.”
Duck asked, “What sports did you lose at?”
“Oh,” Stern punctuated his sentence by taking Duck’s hand and looking it over. “I’m incredibly physically fit. I don’t lose.”
With that, Duck swallowed hard.
“You walked here? Don’t you need a ride back?”
“Smoking weed is one thing. I won’t have us get you a DUI.”
“Well fair enough. I am sobering up though.”
“Yeah, that burn got me out of it too.”
“In that case, I feel comfortable asking, ‘Can I kiss you, Ranger Newton?’”
Duck blushed and nodded, leaning in and connecting with Stern. Their mouths moved sloppily together, Stern’s tongue an adventurer in an Antarctic ice cavern, honed and wired.
Electricity escaped the two, and Duck squeezed back Stern’s hand, “Well, that’s not how I thought my night would go.”
“A mi tampoco,” Stern gave a small hiccup of laughter and brushed back his hair, his deep brown eyes looking back at Duck.
“You have my number. Let’s get dinner some time.”
At that point, the two were making their way back to the group. Jake and Aubrey were in a heated discussion about early 2000s Disney shows, so their cover was made. But they were both outed as the oldest in the room.
Duck couldn’t have been more pleased he made it out to Amnesty Lodge.