I’ve never liked taking my son, Ben, along on business trips, especially now he’s at that tireless, inquisitive age where everything is either utterly boring or fascinating. Any parent will know just what I mean. But Ben’s father, who’s a handyman, was working long hours all weekend, and the regional office had a creche I could use, so I decided to turn the trip into a weekend break. The hotel in Atlanta, Georgia was pretty, but well past it’s best, the sort of place with lots of empty rooms. Cheap, in other words, which was everything to me. The polite elderly guy on reception took a real shine to Ben and myself, and insisted on giving us the penthouse suite at the regular room-rate, since no-one else was using it.
The suite was huge: two adjoining bedrooms and a spacious lounge; plenty of space for Ben to play whilst I sat on my bed and worked on my presentation which nobody would care about.
“Old Misser Duck’s in here, mommy!” Ben ran out of the bathroom, looking delighted.
I barely looked up from my ancient laptop, plugged in as the battery went three years previously. “Do you mean ‘Old Mr. Duck’, sweetie?” He couldn’t yet pronounce his ‘T’s.
“Old Misser Duck, Old Misser Duck!” he was bouncing with glee. “He’s in baffroom, sayin’ fings! Come see, mommy!”
I said I’d go look later, pleased he’d made an animal friend to amuse himself, even if it was imaginary. “But ducks don’t ‘say’ things, honey. They quack! So why don’t you go quack back?”
I was so engrossed in my stupid project that I didn’t notice that it was growing dark outside. Ben’s giggles from the lounge spurred me to shut my laptop and call him in.
“I’ll order us some food, buddy. Sorry mommy’s not been a whole bunch of fun today!”
“S’ OK, mommy. Old Misser duck been quack-quack-quacking how he loves you!”
This made me smile, though I wondered what had brought a duck to Ben’s mind, as we were about as far from any pond as possible. That night, Ben insisted he be allowed to sleep alone in the other bedroom; I agreed as he’d been so well-behaved all evening. I heard him whispering softly until late, and figured he was excited about being away from home and making a new, make-believe friend. I imagined hearing faint, raspy “quacks” echoing as I drifted off to sleep, and heard tiny duck footsteps somewhere above me.
The next morning I found Ben curled up under his bed in a grumpy mood.
“Whatever’s the matter, sweetheart? Doesn’t Old Mister Duck want to play, today?”
“Old Misser duck lef’ me all alone las’ nigh’. He liked seein’ you sleep more’n me.”
I felt an icy draft tingle the gooseflesh on the back of my neck, and looked up to see that the ancient ventilation shaft above the head of Ben’s bed was missing its grill cover, which I was sure hadn’t been the case the previous evening. I rushed back into my room to find an identical set-up above my own bed. As I stood still and peered into the black metal passageway, just big enough to fit a person, It dawned on me that Ben’s dad would have taught him the word “duct”, as he was forever fixing them in our ancient apartment block. I’d noticed similar shafts in the suite’s bathroom and lounge, too.
“You lookin’ for Old Misser Duck? S’ OK, Mommy. He quacked me where we lived, so I quacked him our address!”
Credit: Hack Shuck