YRD801: Remedial Family Science

The Present

When Johnny heard a knock on his door, he was surprised. Because he was still in the process of moving in and had so little to bring into the flat that he found it unlikely the neighbors would take notice, he figured they assumed it was still empty. Now that they were knocking, he suddenly felt naked. As he moved toward the door, he glanced around the room to find that he had nowhere for his visitors to sit. Furnishing the flat was still a work in progress, with most of the effort confined to his bedroom. The best surface he could provide them was a coffee table, and he really didn't want anyone sitting on it. He sighed. It was the price he had to pay for courtesy. He smoothed out his shirt, flattened the cowlicks in his hair the best he could—he still hadn't showered that morning, so keeping them all down was impossible—and reached for the knob. Before he turned it, he sniffed under his arms. His deodorant from the night before had worn off, and he really, really hoped that the person on the other side was not an attractive woman.

When he opened the door, he felt his chest drop. His brother, Earl, was standing there with his girlfriend, an attractive woman, beside him and the lines on his face were in the shape of pride. Johnny felt his hand tightening around the door handle. He fought the urge to slam the door shut and race for the kitchen where he could hide in the pantry. The only thing worse than showing off an empty flat to the neighbors was showing one off to his family because the neighbors were less likely to make suggestions on how the place should look. He was a grown man! He didn't need design advice from someone who didn't live there. He wouldn't run, though. He stiffened his chest instead.

Without waiting for an invite to come in, Earl slapped him on the shoulder and brushed him aside, nearly pushing him into the wall. Maggie, his girlfriend, waited at the door. She had that look on her face that said, "May I?" Johnny, regaining his balance, reluctantly motioned her to enter. He kept his shoulders tight to his sides as he let her in. He worried she could smell him.

"Oi, it's not so bad here," Earl said. "Nice neighborhood, from what I can tell."

"Thanks," Johnny said. He didn't move from the door. He just wanted his brother to turn right back around and leave. He hoped by standing there, his brother would get the message. He started counting in his head to see how long it would take for his wish to come true.

Maggie caught up to Earl and kept pace with him as he circled the flat's living area and scanned every corner.

"Anyone play their music too loud?" Earl asked.

"Dunno," Johnny said. "Been here a day."

"Right, right. A day? Hmm. Mum told me you moved in a week ago. Figures. Was supposed to help with boxes, but forgot. Guess you didn't need my help."

"No." Johnny was glad his brother established that fact early. In his head, he was up to ten.

There was a pause. Earl moved to the middle of the room where the flat had the most floor space.

"You have any furniture, boxes, anything?"

This conversation was moving dangerously close to design advice territory.

"Bed and a desk." Please leave, Johnny thought.

"Anything else?"

"Gotta get a job first."

"Right, right." Earl nodded as he trailed off. He was now looking at the window, the one facing the park. He moved toward it.

"Nice view."

"Why are you here?" Johnny asked.

"Just checking up on you, little brother. The world is a nutty place, and I want to make sure it's not taking advantage of you."

"It hasn't had time."

"Yes, maybe. World doesn't wait for that kind of thing, though. You meet your neighbors yet?"

"No."

"Any nice girls come to welcome you to the neighborhood?"

Johnny thought about Claire and frowned.

"No."

"Heh, yeah, guess that only happens in the movies. The park is tidy, it seems."

Johnny considered offering his uninvited guests a drink, but he hadn't been to the store yet. He had been drinking water by cupping his hands under the faucet. Given the circumstances, it was probably for the best.

"I'm fine," Johnny said. "I'll ring if I need any help."

"Right, right." Earl glanced back from the window, flashed a smile, then returned his focus to the window. "Saw the graduation on my computer. Kinda stuffy."

"No offence, mate, but I'm kinda busy today. Can we visit later?"

"Sure, sure. Just making sure you didn't get lost on the train."

"I know my way around."

"Right, you're a grown man now. I often forget."

Johnny knew that statement as truth. His brother was consistent at forgetting he was an adult. Please leave, Johnny thought.

Earl approached Johnny and put his hand on his shoulder.

"Proud of you, little brother."

"Oh, how cute," Maggie said.

Johnny and Earl both rolled their eyes. This was hardly a tender moment.

"What's his name?"

"What?" Johnny asked.

Both Johnny and Earl looked toward Maggie, who was now standing beside the fireplace. She was holding the rubber duck, stroking its head. She squeaked it.

"Oi," Earl said. "You got another rubber duck?"

Johnny's neck tightened up.

"No."

Earl moved toward Maggie. Johnny stepped after him.

"Don't lie. What you got another rubber duck for? Got some kid on the way I don't know about?"

"No. It's the same duck. Leave it alone."

Earl glanced over his shoulder and cast an amused look at Johnny.

"Same duck? You joking me?"

"No."

Earl pried the duck from Maggie's hand.

She slapped him on the shoulder. "Oi, I was playing with that."

He grimaced at her. She shrugged and wandered off. He rolled the duck around in his hand, studying its every angle.

"Hmm, the marking underneath is the same," he said.

"It's the same duck," Johnny said.

"How?"

"Doesn't matter how. You need to put it back on the mantle."

Earl squeaked the duck.

"You know you'll never get a girl to stay overnight if she sees this sitting on your mantle."

"I'll worry about that when the time comes. Put it back."

Earl looked at his brother and frowned.

"Haven't I taught you anything useful?"

"No."

"You need to grow up, little brother."

Earl put the rubber duck in his pocket. Johnny took a step closer.

"Take it out of your pocket, Earl."

"Can't. Can't let you ruin your life."

"That's for me to decide."

"True, true, but you're making bad decisions already, if you keep it."

"That's bollocks, and you know it."

They stared at each other. Johnny was about to lunge for his brother's wrist, but he knew his brother would bat him away with his free hand. The other hand was still tucked in his pocket.

"I want the duck," Johnny said.

"I want you to grow up."

Johnny held out his hand.

"I'm plenty grown. Gimme back my duck before I clock you."

Earl shook his head.

"You have no idea what the world will do to you if it sees you carrying it around."

"I've thought about that already. I don't care. Gimme back the duck."

A moment passed without either of them moving. In the kitchen, Johnny could hear the refrigerator opening and closing. Then the cabinets. Then the refrigerator. Then he heard something crash to the floor and a woman with a sweet voice uttering an obscene word. Neither Johnny nor Earl glanced toward the kitchen.

"Please give me back my duck," Johnny said.

Earl took the rubber duck out of his pocket and stared at it.

"Is this really the same duck?"

"Yes."

"How do you know?"

"The stories it's told me."

Earl glanced at Johnny, frowned, and shook his head.

"Johnny. I can't protect you from yourself forever."

Johnny finally lurched into action. He grabbed his laptop off the table and opened the screen.

"I'm not a loon. I'll show you."

Johnny showed Earl the flash drive and then loaded the stories that the previous duck-keepers had written. Earl wasn't a natural reader, and several times he resisted Johnny's request to even look at the laptop, but he finally gave in when Johnny threatened to kick him between the legs. He snatched the computer from Johnny's hands and sat on the coffee table to read each account. Because he wanted his brother to actually feel something for the duck, for the adventures it held, and for the people it had blessed, Johnny decided to leave the room, giving him space to concentrate. Of course, he hated the idea of putting the duck at Earl's mercy, but he didn't see much choice. Earl wasn't about to give it back to him, not without an understanding. Johnny believed that telling the stories would be enough. He hoped that Earl could see the accounts of grown adults sharing something with each other as a source of value. After all, what was really the difference between a child's toy and a symbol of emotional currency? Wasn't the duck what the beholder made of it? If Earl could understand that, that the duck wasn't actually a kid's toy, then maybe he would leave Johnny alone. It was the best and only solution here. Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. It felt like a terrible solution.

He moved toward the kitchen, where he found Maggie playing on her phone. He hoped he hadn't made a mistake abandoning the duck to Earl. He also didn't want to see Earl's reaction to the stories, specifically to Johnny's story. He worried that Earl would have no reaction whatsoever. Maggie looked up and smiled. Johnny was too nervous about what was going on in the other room to smile back. She was the only one in the flat who seemed emotional here. Johnny moved to the sink and turned on the faucet. He cupped his hands under the stream for a drink.

With water dripping from his chin, Johnny stared at the space between rooms. The living room, around the corner, maintained its silence. His heart pounded as he listened for any suspicious noises. He waited for any sour or ill-distanced squeaks. The room around the corner stayed quiet. The only noise in the flat was of Maggie's phone making weird clicking and chiming noises.

A few minutes passed. Johnny had expected Earl to come into the kitchen to retrieve him after he was done reading, but so far he was a no-show. Earl was slow, but not that slow. Each passage of the duck's journey was hardly two pages long. He could've finished in ten minutes. When more than fifteen minutes had gone by, however, Johnny returned to the living room to find Earl gone and the rubber duck sitting on the mantle. "Earl?" Johnny searched the other rooms to find them empty. He checked the hallway outside the flat. Earl was nowhere to be found. It didn't make any sense.

"Earl left," Johnny said to Maggie when he went back inside. She had moved back into the living room and was now sitting on the coffee table. "Where would he go?"

"Earl left?"

"Can't find him."

Maggie slid her finger across her phone's screen, tapped it, then put it to her ear.

"Earl, where are you?" She pressed her screen again, starting tapping out a message. "Not like him to ditch me."

Johnny shrugged.

"Sure he didn't ditch you."

She put her phone away.

"Why would he leave? What'd you say to him?"

"I didn't say anything. I've been in the kitchen with you the whole time."

She shook her head.

"Before you came in?"

"Nothing. Just told him the story about my duck."

She narrowed her eyebrows.

"Your duck has a story?"

Johnny rolled his eyes. He was tired of explaining himself.

"It's on my blog."

"Must've been quite the story if he left after hearing it."

Johnny pointed at the laptop.

"It's there if you want to see for yourself."

"If it means the difference between me catching a ride or walking home alone, I suppose I shall."

Maggie read the stories. Johnny watched her. He noted the rise and fall of her emotions with each entry. She was indifferent to Will's story, and swooned a little at Grant's. She seemed particularly judgmental of Ricky, wondering why he'd bother making such an awful sounding dish. Johnny reminded her that, to Ricky, it's the best dish ever. She also empathized with Megan's story.

"Had a roommate do that to me once. Bloody nightmare."

"What? Pick your nose in your sleep?"

"Bloody nightmare."

Johnny leaned toward her.

"Maggie isn't short for Megan, is it?"

She smirked.

"I didn't write this, love. Just have a common tale is all."

"Okay." Johnny remembered Megan as the only person in the line of adventurers who didn't seem to have any connection to him, and he wondered if maybe her connection was just delayed. "If you say so."

"I say so. Come to think of it, I got at least three girlfriends with the same story. None of them called Megan though."

"That's a shame."

"Quite."

When she finished, she closed the laptop. She didn't bother asking if Johnny was still working on it.

"Interesting," she said.

"Yeah?"

She looked up at him. Her mouth was flat, with the corners of her lips twitching downward. Her eyes were soft.

"You know," she said, "he was jealous of you as a child."

Johnny's head twitched.

"What are you talking about?"

"I didn't know that was the same duck. Earl told me that story."

"About him throwing my duck out the window on a drive?"

"Wasn't his proudest moment, but he did it. Wasn't to protect you, though, in spite of what he may have told you."

"Pardon?"

"He's always fed you the lie that you were too old to be carrying around the duck. He always claimed he was looking out for you. When he told me that story, he framed it as if he were some kind of hero. But I listen to what he says, and he's kind of daft if you ask me. He says he's protecting you, but he's not."

It seemed that for the longest time Johnny was sitting on the coffee table beside her, but now he was somehow standing. He wasn't aware of when he'd changed positions. He just found himself staring at her.

"No?"

She shook her head.

"Your grandfather never gave him anything to remember him by. Based on the threads I pieced together from his endless stories of grandeur, he was jealous that he had to do everything himself, without guidance. You had your grandfather. He had nobody. He was jealous. That's my assessment. Clear as day."

Johnny sat on the floor by her feet. This was news to him.

"Jealous?"

"Like a skinny girl of an even skinnier girl."

"Oh," he said.

"That's why he tossed the duck."

"I see."

Johnny stared at the floor.

"So, it's your fault if I have to walk home alone."

"Oh."

Johnny pulled his knees to his chest and rocked back and forth. Maggie got up from the coffee table, brushed out the wrinkles in her skirt, and returned to the kitchen. She didn't seem eager to leave. Now he would have to walk her home; that, too, was clear as day. It would've been the polite thing to do.

"You have any pudding?" she called out to him.

"No."

Before he walked her out, he grabbed the duck and put it in his pocket. She didn't notice, and he didn't call attention to it. He thought it was better to keep it to himself. He thought she might get upset at him if she found out.

"Earl says you never had a girlfriend," Maggie said, as she stepped into the hallway.

"What of it?"

"If you're going to walk me home, then you need to understand something about women."

"Okay."

"If somebody or something attacks, it's your job to fend them off. Got it?"

"Okay." Johnny already assumed that was the rule.

"It's not mine."

"Okay."

"You've already upset your brother. Don't upset him again by getting me hurt."

"I'll try not to."

She sniffed the air.

"What's that I keep smelling?"

Johnny excused himself a moment and went into the washroom to put on some deodorant. When he returned, she was on her phone.

"Bloke's still not picking up," she said.

They headed for the street. In the car park, Earl's car was definitely gone. Johnny didn't know what else to do but to keep walking.