Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Buddy fidgets, starts to ask a question, and Joe puts a finger to his lips. “Listen. Who do you hear?”

Buddy tries to sort the whistles from the chirrups. “I want to see a blue-winged teal.”

“What have I said about patience?” Joe says. He taps Buddy’s shoulder, rotates the stool to the back of the tank. The sun plays a fan dance with the Sierra Nevadas. Just when you think she’s ready to show it all, she hides the good stuff behind another peak. Not that Joe would know where to find a burly-q these days. That was another lifetime, back before Mac and the weekly meetings, when he and Buddy’s dad still hunted. Does Danny remember it’s his boy’s birthday? Or has the date slipped his reality like everything else? Not that Danny’s allowed to call or send a card from Fort Leavenworth. Jessie’s made sure of that. Got a judge to erase all parental rights, even issue a new birth certificate with a blank where the father’s name goes.

The sky turns tangerine pink, a fresh miracle. A row of cattails silhouettes black against the glow. The beauty squeezes his heart. Mornings, Joe thinks he just might trust in God again. It’s hard to get past Step Two when you can’t find your Higher Power. Not that he ever expresses doubt to his partner in the tank. No, Joe says all the right words every time Buddy asks if Heaven is out beyond the Milky Way.

A whistle cuts through the darkness. “Recognize that, Buddy?”

“Is it a pintail?”

“Good boy. You know some folks call it a sprig.” Joe points to the drake’s chocolate head resting on the white neck. Up close, the feathers form a delicate pattern, as closely woven as a spider web, impossible to see in this dim light.

“You can tell a pintail by the blue part on the bill,” Buddy says.

Kid has a good memory, better than his father ever did. Joe tried, but hell if Danny cared about the names and the markings.

“When will it be duck hunting time again?” Buddy asks.

“Not till October.”

“Are there ducks where Brandon lives?”

Joe’s never been down to Silicon Valley where Buddy and his mama are moving. Hasn’t even met Jessie’s fancy new beau yet. She didn’t bother to tell him about the move or the new baby till this morning. Some notice after all he’d done for her.

“There are ducks all over California,” Joe says. “Maybe you’ll see some new ones.”

“Brandon’s going to teach me hockey.”

“That’s great, Buddy.” He’d promised Jessie he’d gin up some enthusiasm, put on a goddamn happy face.

“I told Brandon I was good at doing things in the cold,” Buddy says. “You and me we’re good at the cold, right?”

“You getting cold now? I can give you my jacket.”

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Michelle McGurk is a former reporter and now works in public policy in San Jose, California. She holds an MFA from Lesley University. This is her first fiction publication.