I’m trapped inside a rubber duck that’s about to be swallowed by a giant shark.
How did I come to be in this predicament, you ask?
Good question. I’d like to know myself.
But there’s no time for that now.
Because if that shark doesn’t swallow me and Durquin—that’s the duck—in the next three seconds, we’ll both disappear into an abyss of bubbles for all eternity.
Sounds nice, I hear you saying.
Once upon a time, I would have thought so too.
But bubbles are only magical because they are fleeting. They are ephemeral. The whole time you’re watching them in wonder, you know they will pop at any moment, and soon after, your wonder will burst too. And you’ll be back in a world without bubbles.
But imagine if you were surrounded by bubbles, a heaving ocean of bubbles, for hours on end, days, weeks…
Alright, it’s only been hours.
My arms are outstretched, my palms pressed against the rubbery insides as I try to fight off the relentless waves of nausea, and the simultaneous fear of drowning in a soapy sea.
Don’t worry, I hear you saying, you’ll be fine. Rubber ducks don’t sink.
That would normally be true. But I didn’t tell you yet about the anchor.
And I didn’t tell you about the dolphin who grabbed the anchor.
And I didn’t tell you that this anchor is wrapped around Durquin’s neck.
And I didn’t tell you—though you might have already guessed—that the dolphin is evil.
I have a lot to catch you up on.
In this place, this forgotten corner on the other side of nowhere, I can’t remember any details from before the moment I picked up the rubber duck. I just know that I don’t belong in this place. This is not my home.
I just know that wherever home is, it’s quiet, and it’s peaceful, and it’s on dry land. And I can’t wait to get back there.
And I just know that my way to get back there is most likely the way I left, the rubber duck. It must be.
It started with the rubber duck, with me picking up the rubber duck. That much I remember.
I picked up the rubber duck.
And I found myself standing in the middle of a desert.
I stood in sand and sandy dunes surrounded me.
I lifted one foot, set it down, lifted the other, and sand seeped and slithered into my sneakers.
I had no reason to panic. I was obviously having a dream, the most vivid dream I’d ever had.
What other explanation would you have if you found yourself standing in a desert holding a rubber duck?
I took a few step, frowning at the too-real and too-irritating feel of the sand already making its way through my socks and between my toes.
Then I saw something shift under the sand a few feet away. Something that made a wavy shape. That’s when I felt the first twinge of nervousness.
That’s when I looked at the rubber duck and said, “Okay, you got me into this. How do we get back?” The duck didn’t answer, but I heard a hissing to my right. I froze.
A spray of sand startled me. I clutched the rubber duck in both hands at my throat. Then a small geyser burst right up from the sand, out of nowhere.
I stood there for a minute, watching the geyser, listening for the sound of another. But no more formed. And the water started trickling away.
The strange thing is, the water wasn’t tricking downward. It trickled up, up the dune and over the rise.
Having no other ideas about where to go next, I followed the trickle.
From the top of the rise, I saw that the sand ended at the border of a small cavern. The water was trickling right into the cavern’s mouth. So I kept following. The cavern mouth was just tall enough for me to enter without having to duck.
Inside the cavern, it felt cool and I heard the rushing of water further ahead. The cavern widened into a large space with a vaulted ceiling that had openings to let the sunlight in. None of this had been visible from outside the cavern. I frowned in confusion.
The trickle had become a stream. I followed the stream as it widened and widened. I began to wonder how wide a body of flowing water had to be before it could be called a river.
“What do you think, Durquin?” I asked the rubber duck.
The name came out of nowhere. I’d made it up, but it sounded familiar somehow. When I said it out loud, it made me feel better, more prepared to handle whatever came next.
This was good, because what came next was even more startling than a geyser springing up in the middle of the desert.
I heard voices ahead and approached cautiously, hoping I would find some people who seemed friendly enough and safe enough to ask for some direction.
As I came closer to the voices, I came to find that they belonged to a crab and a turtle.
The two animals were standing by the shore of the river, arguing. I watched them. I watched the turtle’s mouth move up and down, tongue flicking out for certain sounds. And I watched what I thought were the crab’s mouth parts moving around. And I listened to their argument.
One of them was worried they would drown. The other one was worried they would float.
“Don’t you both know how to swim?” I asked.
The crab and the turtle turned toward me.
“Eavesdropper!” said the turtle.
“Who asked you?” said the crab, waving his claws.
I backed away from them and continued along the shore, following the direction of the river.
“I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop,” I explained to Durquin.
I hadn’t meant to be rude. I just got so mesmerized. I’d seen talking animals before, in movies. But never in person, of course. Even in a dream it was more surreal than I would have expected. But then, I’d never really thought about it much.
I pinched the skin at the side of my wrist. I winced. But I did not wake (assuming I needed to wake).
I approached the shore and dropped to my knees. I slipped Durquin into the pocket of my windbreaker, and reached down to scoop up some water in my cupped hands. It looked clear and fresh. I was tempted to drink some. But I just splashed it on my face.
“Nope,” I said. I did not wake.
So I continued following the river.
“I should be more worried than this,” I said, half to myself and half to the rubber duck riding in my pocket. “This would be more fun if I knew for sure that I was dreaming.”
I started smelling something other than fresh water and mossy rock. Something that smelled like food, something salty and savory, gravy-like. A little buttery. Then I heard the sounds of chatter and some kind of tinkling that might have been music.
I braced myself for more talking animals, and it’s a good thing I did. I was ready for what I saw next as the cavern opened up even more.
Durquin and I had come upon a cave bazaar.
I swept aside just as a gaggle of geese charged past. I almost knocked over one of the supports holding up the booth of a camel, who patiently told me not to worry about it. She was selling bolts of satin cloth in solid colors. The booth next to hers was also selling cloth and clothing. Further along, there were booths displaying jewelry, books, kitchen ware—or maybe they were weapons, and then finally, food.
I was walking along the central path. But there were also booths aligned along the cavern wall at various heights, as if they were emerging from the wall. Some booths even hung from the ceiling. Bats fluttered between the ceiling booths, and swooped down to drop wares onto the paws, claws, hands, or backs of awaiting patrons. The talking animals were all speaking my primary language, another clue this was a dream. Amid them, I spotted a few humans. I walked toward them. I had to pass through the bazaar anyway, if I aimed to keep following the direction of the water.
I felt my gut do a little flip as I approached the three people. Dream or no dream, I decided to do my best not give too much away.
I smiled at the humans.
They weren’t vendors. So I asked them where they were from. I guess I was hoping they would point in the direction of the “land of the humans.” And I would know where to go so I could get back home. Their answers were not helpful. Two of them said they were from nowhere. The third didn’t answer, but asked her own question. She wanted to know why I was curious where they were from and if I were visiting.
“No,” I said, “not visiting, really, but…I am curious, of course. I wonder where I might find a map.”
I was in a bazaar where all manner of things was being sold, but wouldn’t you know it, I hadn’t thought about looking for a booth selling maps until that moment.
“You’re from somewhere, aren’t you?” the third woman asked.
I smiled. “Aren’t we are all from somewhere?”
She shook her head. “No, we are all from nowhere. But you, you are from somewhere.”
None of them seemed outright hostile about “somewhere,” so I risked admitting to one thing.
“I’m not sure if I’m from somewhere,” I said. “I just know I’m not from nowhere.”
The third woman’s dark eyes twinkled. “How did you get here?”
I pulled Durquin out of my pocket, and held him to my side so that only she could see. I wasn’t sure why I was hiding him. Just a precaution.
The mysterious twinkle left the woman’s eye. “Oh,” she said. She sighed and crossed her arms. “Well, you’re definitely from somewhere. Trying to get back there?”
It would seem the precaution was not necessary, maybe. “It’s about time for me to be heading home.”
The third woman pointed to Durquin. “The bubble sea is the only way that one can get you back.”
I glanced down at Durquin.
“There are other ways,” the woman said, “but you’d have to leave the duck behind, and you know what that means.”
I looked up at her and pressed my lips as if to indicate that I did know what that meant, and I had no comment about it. In truth, I had no idea what it would mean, but I seemed to be making progress, so I aimed to keep moving with the flow as long as I could. The woman pointed me to the harbor. It was on the other side of the cavern. She told me to follow the flow of the river.
I thanked her. She grinned and said. “If you ever come back to nowhere, there are nicer places to visit.” She glanced at the pocket where I’d put Durquin, then glanced backed at me. “Oh, and watch out for dolphins.”
I nodded and waved goodbye with another thanks.
Even though the cavern had only been getting bigger up till that point, I remembered how small the cave mouth was where I entered. I pictured the ceiling dropping, the cavern narrowing, until I was crawling or swimming through suffocating tunnels.
I had nothing to worry about as it turned out. Lots of people and animals were passing to and fro along the stream I followed, as if it were just a regular street. The cavern looked as if it had been carved out and crafted to make a path that was easy for all the various people and creatures to follow. So I soon found myself exiting the cavern and walking right into a town, where I smelled the scent of the salt sea and vinegar and fried fish. It made me feel hungry. But I resisted, which was easy since I had no payment.
I found my way to the docks.
“Oh boy,” I said, when I saw what was docked at the docks.
I pulled Durquin out of my pocket.
The harbor was teeming with giant rubber ducks that look just like him.
“Looks like we’re in the right place,” I said.
I walked along the pier. I gently placed Durquin in the water, and was not surprised when he started to grow. I stepped back and watched him expand until he was the same size as all the other ducks docked in the harbor.
That’s when I noticed something, or realized something. Durquin—like all the other ducks—did not have a propeller, or paddles, or sails, or any kind of way for me to actually move him through the water.
“Excuse me, Captain,” someone said.
A child was approaching me. She held out a sealed metal canister to me. “Are you sure this is for me?” I asked.
“That duck is yours?” The child pointed to Durquin.
“He’s…we’re together, yes.”
“Then this is for you.”
I opened the canister and found and piece of paper in there. The paper was an invitation to a mandatory meeting of captains to be held in one hour, with instructions on reaching the location. No one would be allowed to embark without attending. The child waited for me to sign to acknowledge receiving the message and to submit my intention to attend.
I asked Durquin to shrink again, so I could take him with me to the meeting, but I wasn’t surprised when nothing happened.
There was a coil of rope attached to a peg anchored to the pier. The rope was long enough for me to tie it around Durquin’s neck.
But I didn’t trust myself to tell Durquin apart from the other ducks floating nearby. The child courier was already halfway down the pier when I called her back over and borrowed her pen. I prepared to write, but then I backed up and asked Durquin if he would allow me to mark him. He bobbed in the water in a way that make it look as if he were nodding. I drew the first unique symbol that popped into my head, a hexagon with the letter “N” at one corner and a double line connecting some corner, and a pentagon attached to one side. Like Durquin’s name, this symbol seemed familiar. But I couldn’t quite remember what it was. I drew the same symbol on my invitation, hoping that was proof enough to connect me and Durquin, in case some unscrupulous captain tried to lay claim to the wrong rubber ducky.
I expected the mandatory captains’ meeting to be boring and pointless for some reason I couldn’t remember.
But the meeting provided the answer to my question of how I was supposed to direct Durquin through the water.
The rubber ducks could not move purposely through the regular ocean, but once they reached the bubble sea, the ducks were the ideal vessel for navigating through it. So, the ducks would be towed to the bubble sea by the captains of conventional vessels. Once they reached the bubble sea, the tow would be reversed, and it would be the ducks pulling their partner vessels through the bubble sea. (We weren’t told how, but I figured I would ask the captain who would be towing Durquin).
On the other side of the bubble sea were green growing lands filled with riches aplenty. Those lands were the aim of most of the captains at the meeting. Without the unique navigational sense of a rubber duck, a conventional ship might wander forever in an abyss of bubbles, or it might slip into another realm.
But slipping into another realm was exactly what I wanted.
The rest of meeting was about pairing up the captains of the ducks with the captains of conventional ships, completing yet more paperwork, and being issued a series of warnings. I received another warning to beware of dolphins. (Apparently, they could turn into other creatures and lure sailors and captains out to sea, only to drag them under and perform strange magical experiments on them, or just eat them.)
I had no trouble reuniting with Durquin after the meeting.
The captain I’d been paired with had given me an anchor to tie around Durquin’s neck. The other end would be tied to the ship that would tow us.
As I moved to tie the anchor around Durquin’s neck, I realized that I hadn’t asked him if he wanted to go home with me or stay.
“You want to go home, with me?” I asked. Durquin bobbed in the water in that way that made it look like he was nodding.
“I just hope I can hang on,” I said. “The captain offered for me to ride on his ship until we got to the bubble sea, but it doesn’t seem right to abandon you. A captain should stay with her ship. I’m sorry I put you in the water. I would have kept you in my pocket if I’d known. But I think you have to be in the water before you enter the bubble sea. Anyway, I’ve asked if I can borrow some rope to tie myself to you, just in case.”
Durquin’s side formed a seam in the shape of a door, and that part of his side dropped to the floor of the pier like a gangplank.
After I was done gaping, I grinned and entered Durquin’s belly. The inside was pretty much as I expected. Whatever magic had made the door in his side seemed to be concerned with keeping me safe, not comfortable. There was a porthole on the other side though. That was good. I hoped not to get seasick, but in case I did, having an opening would be good.
I realized then that I hadn’t eaten anything since I could remember. There had been refreshments at the captains’ meeting, but I hadn’t taken anything. I was still suspicious of eating or drinking anything here in the middle of nowhere. I hoped Durquin could take us home before I would need to eat, drink, or sleep.
I tied the anchor around Durquin’s neck, notified the captain of our partner vessel, secured myself inside Durquin, and before too long, we were under way.
Aside from a moment of occasional tilting, the ride was fairly smooth. We bobbed up and down slightly. I got knocked to port once, but being that Durquin was made of rubber, I didn’t hurt myself. If I felt a little dizzy, I looked out of the porthole to the horizon.
Every now and then, I patted Durquin’s side and thanked him for carrying me.
I could tell we were getting closer to the bubble sea when we slowed down. At the captains’ meeting, they had warned us this would happen. Whatever it was in the water that made the sea bubble and foam, it was more viscous than saltwater. It mucked up the workings of some ships so that they couldn’t get very far past the outer border of the bubble sea.
But even though we slowed, we dove right in.
About an hour after we slowed, we were surrounded by thick clouds of bubbles. Past the rush of the water, I heard the constant churning and fizzing of the bubbles, forming and popping.
Soon, we hit some other kind of barrier. I felt the change in the way we were bobbing. We were jerked forward and then back again. We kept jerking back. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it felt as if Durquin was resisting.
I looked out of the porthole. Through the haze of bubbles, I caught a glimpse of something huge swimming alongside us. I gulped. I had no way of warning the captain of the ship that was tugging us. I had asked about communications, but he said it would fine, and I didn’t press. I opened the porthole and waved my hand, hoping someone aboard the ship would see and wonder what I was frantically waving about.
I closed the porthole and prepared to open the gangplank and walk out.
That was when something yanked us forward so strongly and suddenly that I went flying.
I hit the back of Durquin’s insides and dropped. Then I started rolling toward his front.
I gasped. I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t really tell. But it felt like Durquin was tilted all the way vertical.
What the heck was happening, I hear you saying.
I didn’t know either.
Until the shark told me.
I was just trying to hold myself in one position to keep from twisting an ankle, or breaking my neck.
I heard a roar that was not the roaring of the soapy water. And I realized that the roar was actually a word.
But who was speaking.
“Durquin!” I yelled.
But it wasn’t Durquin.
“Danger!” the voice said again. “The dolphin has you.”
I knew it. I knew Durquin was fighting something. We were doomed. Somehow, a dolphin had gotten hold of the anchor around Durquin’s neck. And if the warning at that captains’ meeting was true, then the dolphin was about to pull us down under the water, where I would drown, and Durquin…well, at least Durquin would be free.
I could try at least. I could try to climb out and untie the anchor. But I had no tools. Maybe, with the help of the soapy water, I could slip the anchor over Durquin’s head.
But that same soapy water would make it almost impossible for me to hold onto Durquin once I got outside, especially at the speed we were now going.
“Almost there!” the voice said.
I glanced out of the porthole. I only saw sudsy water splashing against the glass. Some of it had already seeped in. It was rising.
“Stay calm! I have to swallow you!”
My arms were outstretched, my palms pressed against the rubbery insides as I tried to fight off the relentless waves of nausea, and the simultaneous fear of drowning in a soapy sea.
In the palms of my hands, I felt a tightening of the rubber. I braced myself against a sudden jerk backwards.
Durquin was resisting again.
Suddenly we were stopped, and bobbing in the water.
I rushed to the porthole and opened it. I popped my head out and looked behind us. I gaped.
A giant shark was bearing down on us, churning through the bubbles, jaws wide open.
I turned to look forward. The anchor tied to Durquin’s neck was slack, but it grew taut. We started moving again.
Faster and faster.
I pulled the porthole closed.
I was trapped inside a rubber duck that was about to be swallowed by a giant shark.
And I think the shark was trying to help us for some reason. Because if the shark did not swallow us, that dolphin would drag us down into a soapy abyss. I did not want to get eaten. And I did not want to be used in that dolphin’s sick magical experiments.
But if the shark did swallow us—
The world went dark.
Durquin’s sides felt soft and rubbery, too soft. Poor little guy. He had used all his strength on that last effort to slow the dolphin down.
I heard a snap and a growl.
Then I felt us sailing forward, and slowing. I fell back again as Durquin righted himself. We hit something and bounced off.
I got up and looked out of the porthole, but I couldn’t see anything, except darkness.
But then, there was a seam of light that grew bigger and brighter.
And then I saw the teeth.
You might expect that at this point, dream or no dream, I would have passed away from fright.
But I didn’t.
Strange. I saw those teeth and I felt a flood of relief.
The curved rows of teeth surrounded us, jutting up out of a thin layer of bubbles, but Durquin was sailing past them.
I wasn’t sure how, but I felt movement under my feet.
“Durquin, are those your feet? Do you have feet now?”
I was not surprised when Durquin didn’t answer.
Durquin sailed us—or paddled us—out of the shark’s mouth. She too was relieved to see us in one piece. She had clamped her jaws shut with enough force to break the chain around Durquin’s neck. She was afraid she might have killed us in the process.
“I saw what happened,” she explained. “The captain of that other vessel was a dolphin. His crew tried to stop him, but he grabbed hold of your anchor, transformed, and dove into the sea.”
“I had heard that there aren’t many living things in the bubble sea,” I told the shark. “Did you follow us in or do you live here?”
“I followed you. And I have a favor to ask. I can’t find my way out on my own. Would you help?”
I let Durquin answer, which he did by bobbing in the water in that way that make it look like he was nodding.
“You saved our lives,” I said. “We owe you that much.”
We—well, Durquin actually—led the shark back to the border of the bubble sea.
“Thank you again,” I said, “for jumping in when you didn’t have to.”
“Always a pleasure to thwart a dolphin,” the shark replied. “And even more of a pleasure to make new friends.”
“If you’re ever in nowhere again,” said the shark, “there are nicer places to visit.”
She swam away and as I waved, I remembered someone else telling me the same thing, and I wondered.
But I didn’t have time to wonder for long. Durquin was already turning us around.
There was no swaying and tilting, no rushing. Durquin carried me back into the bubble sea with a gentle bobbing. And I suddenly realized how drained I was, even though I hadn’t done anything. I sat down and leaned my head against Durquin’s side.
I started dozing off and when my head slipped to the side, I jerked awake—
—and I found myself standing in front of a metal cart filled with boxes and bags.
The doze had me in its grip. I swallowed and blinked my eyes.
I heard the sound of clicking. “Aww, I used to have one of those when I was a kid,” a woman said.
I turned to her. I smiled and shrugged, and she moved on, the heels of her shoes clicking on the shiny tiles.
Grocery store. I was in a grocery store.
I was in the toy aisle of the grocery store, searching for some last-minute gift for my nephew. My lovable menace of a toddler nephew, who had all the newest toys. So I’d gone looking for something…
I looked at the toy I was holding in my hand.
It was a rubber duck.
I glanced up and saw a toy rubber shark and a toy rubber dolphin, among other animals and objects.
I shook my head. I reached up to put the rubber duck back. But I spotted markings on the side of the duck that I recognized. Not random things, but a specific thing, a hexagon, next to a pentagon…the caffeine molecule.
My nephew, he couldn’t pronounce “duck.” He called them “dirks.”
No wonder the name sounded familiar. I peered down at the rubber duck.
I could have sworn, Durquin’s beak was turned up at the sides a little extra, as if he were smiling.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel