We all thought it would happen in a rush, in a grand, crashing terror of spaceships and explosions, or plagues and rotting flesh, aliens and zombies and brother against sister. We were prepared for that, in a weird sort of way, with all our books and movies and TV shows and video games. I think we really thought we’d know the end of the world when we saw it, because we’d rehearsed it so many times.
Do I have to tell you we were wrong?
No, I reckon you already know that, because you’re here, watching with me. Or maybe you don’t think it’s the end. Maybe you think this is the new normal. I don’t know. But the ducks. The damn ducks.
When I was in my late twenties, I guess, or round there, rubber ducks were all the rage. Everyone had flotillas of the damn things lined up in their bathrooms, people had bride and groom (or groom and groom, or bride and bride, whatever) ducks on their wedding cakes, there were devil ducks, and biker ducks, and very small ducks and absolutely enormous ducks, every colour you could think of. They were our generation’s ironic wink to childhood bath toys, nicely couched so that we could legitimately keep them in our baths still, and not feel we were weird little child-adults, fetish-ising our infancy. They were cute, so, you know, why not. They even got inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame (who knew there even was such a thing?), and rubber duck races became a bit of a craze. A bunch of them were in some containers that got swept off a cargo ship (along with blue rubber turtles, green rubber frogs, and red rubber beavers, but you never hear about those. Only the godforsaken yellow rubber ducks), and the next thing you know scientists were going on about all the information these drifting lumps of rubber were giving them about ocean currents and the like. I mean, don’t they have instruments for that sort of thing? I don’t know. I’m not an oceanographer. But it just made them more popular. They were everywhere. They are everywhere.
Big change starts with small things. We all know that. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, blah blah blah. Revolutions turn on a pinhead, and wars start with the drop of a glove. We know. But when you’re in the middle of it all, small things are just, well, small things. Business as usual. Everyday injustices that make you shake your head, and smile extra-wide at whoever’s ‘other’ today, and drop a few coins in the beggar’s mug. And then the small things become big things, but there’s still nothing you can do. You can’t change laws. You can’t change policies. Sure, you can vote, but what’s the point? It’s a drop in the bucket. You can protest, but who’s listening, really? Only the already converted. So on you go, life uninterrupted, and new politicians get in, playing the same cruel games, and little quarters are given so they can take bigger halves. It’s just life. You and me, we could never change that. Well, maybe you could. You’ve got a degree and an expensive suit and a big office. I’m wearing the same jeans I have for the last week. Anyway. We weren’t talking about that. You asked me how it started.
I can’t be entirely sure, of course. But I first noticed it – noticed them – that winter. There’s always a few places being quirky, with ducks in Santa hats and duck ornaments and bloody ducks on top of Christmas trees. But there were more. So many more. Even places that normally went for more traditional stuff – my office, for example. There was a woman in the cubicle next to me, Holly, and she always put little decorations out. She had zombie ducks for Halloween, and I tell you, they scared the crap out of me. She had one on the divider, looking down at me with these crazy eyes, and sometimes I’d think it moved, and then I’d tell myself it was just the cubicle wobbling – they may as well’ve been made of cardboard – but I didn’t believe it. Not with the way it looked at me. I asked her to put it on her desk, but she already had too many on there, and – I dunno. I didn’t want to admit I was afraid of it, I guess. So I put up with it, until the day it fell on me, and I screamed, I admit it, I screamed and threw it at her and told her to take her damn ducks and, and – well, you can imagine what I said. It earned me a visit to HR. She was pretty snotty with me after that, and when she took the Halloween ducks down, she put the Christmas ones straight up.
I’m not proud of what I did. They were her ducks, but she shouldn’t have lined them all up like that, looking at me. She shouldn’t. I even told HR that I had Anatidaephobia, but they said it was made up, that it wasn’t a real phobia at all, and I had to replace all the bloody Santa and reindeer ducks. All of them. And she lined them all up on top of the divider again, so every time I looked up there were these dead eyes, all staring back at me. As if they knew what I’d done to their predecessors. I kind of wish I hadn’t taken them home to do it. The whole apartment smelled of burning rubber until February.
So there were Holly’s bloody ducks at work, and more of them in the lobby come December, because some bright spark had decided to dress the tree with them, and every tree I passed seemed to have at least a few of them, and no one I spoke to even seemed to have noticed. It’s like I said – change comes too small to see. But I saw. Oh, god, I saw. The world went yellow and orange. Everywhere ducks – yellow ducks and blue ducks and red ducks but mostly just yellow ducks and orange beaks, yellow and orange, yellow and orange. We expected Armageddon and we got, what? Duckopalypse?
But at least I could go home, and draw the curtains, and turn off the TV, and read books that featured absolutely no rubber ducks of any sort. I stopped going out with friends after our favourite pub not only decorated with rubber ducks, they started floating them in the pints. In the pints! I had a G&T instead, and there were little rubber duck ice cubes in it. I couldn’t drink it. They were looking at me. They’re always looking at me.
I started to call in sick to work after the company changed all the screensavers to rubber ducks floating across the background. It started with one or two, then more, until there were dozens of them pouring across, a horror show of beaks and staring eyes. This was after Christmas, when I thought I’d got through the worst, and all the decorations would be put away, and the ducks would fade like those stupid bloody Christmas Elf on a shelf things. But it got worse. People were wearing duck earrings, duck jumpers, duck bracelets. They’d become the latest fashion statement. I couldn’t go on facebook any more, because instead of kitten videos, there was nothing but duck videos. And I mean nothing. Not from anywhere in the world. No political discourse, no outraged posts about vaccines or GMO’s or chemtrails or whatever the hell – just ducks. Ducks in coats, and ducks in hats, and kids pushing ducks in strollers. Hell, I think I even saw a photo of a duck pushing a duck in a stroller. There were programmes on TV about the ‘latest phenomenon sweeping the globe’, and every ad had a duck in it somewhere, like not to have was something akin to forgetting to bow to the Queen.
And no one questioned it. No one said, hey, why aren’t we talking about the problem with all these ducks? Why aren’t we looking at what they’re distracting us from? Why aren’t we hearing about war, and famine, and death, and disease any more? What happened to the four horsemen stalking the land? Where the hell did all these ducks come from instead? Or maybe they were, but they were probably all like me, too scared to go online to find anyone to talk to because going online meant navigating more ducks. I don’t know.
I stopped going to work entirely the weekend after they wallpapered the building with rubber duck murals. To boost morale, apparently. I walked into the lobby, turned around and walked out again. Called from home, said a death in the family meant I wouldn’t be coming in for a while. My supervisor said she was very sorry, and sent around a delivery from the florist – a bouquet of rubber ducks. I told the delivery guy they were from my cheating boyfriend, and told him to give them to the first person he saw outside. No way they were coming in. No way. My home is my haven.
Was my haven.
Up ‘til now, it was just kind of one of those things, like Grumpy Cat, or Doge – everywhere for a while, then the craze would die down and something else would replace it. Okay, it was a lot more extreme – even the news networks had ducks all over the studio, and the newscasters were usually sitting down among them, or on rubber duck chairs, and stories about rubber ducks swamped everything else. Scientists were studying them. Schools were teaching about them. Writers were writing about them. No one was talking about the value of the pound, or refugees, or the NHS. Bright-eyed people on city streets sang the praises of the rubber ducks. They were using them to broker peace deals in the Middle East, apparently. There were pictures of stern men in traditional dress, and soldiers with assault rifles held to attention, surrounded by waves of rubber ducks. You could see the men’s eyes straying to them, distracted from the visiting dignitaries in their suits and red faces and sly smiles. But still – it could have been a craze, right? It could have been just that.
Until the morning I opened my curtains – my curtains on my third floor apartment window – and found my window box full of them, little yellow bodies rimed with frost, flat eyes staring in at me. I screamed, and jerked the curtains shut, and swore I hadn’t seen them, but when I checked they were still there. They were at all the windows.
I got rid of them, of course I did – I wasn’t about to touch them, or bring them inside, but I got a broom and knocked them off, and just hoped they didn’t hit anyone below. I couldn’t imagine who had put them there. They’d have needed a fireman’s ladder. It was a crappy joke, if that’s what it was, and that’s what I convinced myself as I heated the last of my baked beans for breakfast. I had to go out, to brave the duck-infested town and shops. I hated even the thought of it, but the cupboards were literally bare. It was shop or starve.
When I got back, there were no ducks on the windowsill.
They were on my kitchen counters, on my little fold-up table, clustered together on the couch and peering out from behind the bookshelves. My first thought was to run, but where to? There were still more ducks outside. Someone had been painting them on the sidewalks, and the bollards had been replaced by them, and the shop windows were full of them, and even the damn cheese blocks were in duck shape. You’d think I’d become numb to it, but every new flash of orange beak is an assault on the senses. I called a locksmith to come and change the lock, then pulled on some rubber gloves and began to clear the room. It took six big bin bags before they were all out in the dumpster behind the house. The locksmith said it was romantic. I said it was psychotic, and he just gave me a confused look and handed me my new key.
I watched old DVD’s, mercifully duck-less, and fell asleep on the couch, waking to a cramped back and a sea of ducks that swept across every surface of the apartment, every shelf, every chair, in boxes and in the sink and piled high in the toilet bowl. Piled high on me. All looking. All smiling their orange smiles as if to say, see? Isn’t this fun?
So here I am. I honestly thought about burning the whole damn apartment block down, but I didn’t fancy getting arrested, and I’m still hoping that order will re-assert itself, that everyone’ll go back to cat videos and dissatisfaction and barely controlled rage. I’m still not entirely certain I’m not hallucinating it, that it isn’t Anatidaephobia run wild, so I’m not just afraid that a duck is watching me, but I’m seeing them everywhere. But, then again, no one’s saying they’re not there. Unless I’m hallucinating that, too.
What do you think, Doctor?
She nods, steeples her fingers. Her office is bland, duck-free – I’d checked. It was a voluntary commitment, and there was no way I would have crossed the threshold if they’d decided the most soothing decor was rubber duck yellow, accentuated with rubber duck lamps. But no – everything is beige and pastel, innocuous water colours and faded floral cushions. It makes me feel safe. Telling her these things makes me feel safe. And now I want her to tell me I’m not crazy, because then I can figure out what to do next.
She smiles at me, a measured smile that is both warm and professional. Trustworthy. She knows. She understands. She’ll give me some meds, or prescribe me some therapy, she’ll help me understand. I’m safe. There’s no ducks that can reach me in here, that smile says. This is a sanctuary. This is where I need to be. Everything is going to be alright. I smile back, feeling protected and comforted, a child tucked in with a favourite toy.
She leans forward, pushes an intercom button. “Charles,” she says, her voice as warm and rounded as that smile, “We’ve got another one.”
What do you think? Real phobia or Gary Larson’s genius invention?
Rubber ducks – cute or weirdly creepy? (Despite the story, I kind of like them. I had a devil duck once – not quite sure what happened to him)
Let me know your thoughts!