11-11-2011, 11:36 PM
Criss sat in the back of the van with his ducklings, all six safe inside the cage. It was mostly to keep them calm and quiet, but deep down he knew this would be the last time he would be with them; after they were released, Brenda would be in charge of their upbringing. In a way it was a relief, but Criss could not help but feel a tinge of sadness over losing his little brood. He had rescued them, raised them, taught them to swim and dabble for food, and used them to raise money for Wildlife Rescue of Nevada. They were now half-grown ducks, but they were still unable to fend for themselves. This must be what it's like to send your kids off to kindergarten, he thought. Or to college.
He tried to keep a brave face, speaking encouraging words to the ducklings, but mostly to convince himself that it was all for the best. "You're going to love your new home, guys," he said with false cheer. "You got a great big pond to swim in, fresh bugs to eat, and no one's gonna take a shot at you like they did your folks. Dr. Gilchrist is gonna take good care of you. And I promise to come visit you whenever I can, okay?"
He lowered himself to their level. "You guys be good now, and mind Dr. Gilchrist," he admonished them. "Quackers, you stay out of any drainpipes, you hear? I don't want to have to fish you out again like last time, okay? And that goes for the rest of you, understand? You gotta fend for yourselves in the wild. I won't be there to protect you like when you were babies. You're almost grown up ducks now, and you're gonna have to live out there on you own. I did the best I could to bring you up, but there comes a time when, you know..."
It was no good. His throat tightened, and the tears welled up in his eyes. "I won't forget you," he said, swallowing his sobs. "I swear to God, I'll never forget you, any of you."
The ducklings huddled together in the cage, dozing away the trip. Whether they heard Criss' heartfelt promises or not, they showed no sign of acknowledgement. Criss wiped his eyes and pulled himself together. He had to be strong, if only for appearance's sake. God forbid he should break down in public over a bunch of baby ducklings, even if they were his own.
The reception at the fifth hole of the Baja Golf Course wasn't as formal or as spectacular as the departure from the Luxor, but it was no less well attended. The media were there ahead of the van's arrival, of course, as well as fans, friends, a few members of Criss' crew, including his cousin, George, and some golfers who suspended their game to see what the fuss was all about.
"What the hell's going on here?" one old duffer demanded. "The US Open or something?"
The van rolled through the main gateway and up to the clubhouse. A parking valet trotted up to the driver's side but was waved off; his services were needed around the back, they told him. Meanwhile, Criss got out of the van and opened the rear door. With the help of the valet he removed the cage from the van and carried it to a waiting maintenance cart parked nearby. They loaded the cage onto the rear bed of the cart and closed the tailgate, making sure it was secure (God forbid it should fall out on the way to the pond), then Criss and Dr. Gilchrist climbed into the two rear seats. A groundskeeper drove the cart to the fifth hole, escorted by a bevy of golf carts carrying photographers and cameramen.
Cheers broke out when the cart convoy arrived at the fifth hole. "Here we are!" Criss shouted as he climbed out of the cart. "We're here to free the duckies!"
George trotted over to the cart with a large board to use as a ramp. He wedged the board just under the cage on the cart and opened the door. "C'mon, guys," he said. "Out. Out of the truck."
The ducklings refused to budge. Criss nudged his cousin aside and tapped the board. "It's okay, guys," he said encouragingly. "Come on out."
One by one the ducklings waddled out of the cage, down the ramp and onto the grass. "Duck," George said, pointing to each little duck disembarking from the cart. "Duck...duck, duck...duck...duck...duck..." When the last little duckling landed on terra firma, George straightened, pointed at Criss and said, "Goose!"
Criss sneered at George's little joke and headed for the pond. The six little ducklings followed him, stumbling through the grass as they tried to keep up with his pace. Halfway there, Brenda stopped him. "I need your boots," she said. She held up a large yellow mailing envelope. "I got the rest of the stuff I need right here."
The heavy combat boots came off without protest. Brenda set them down on the grass and slid them on. She then pulled out an eight-by-ten glossy photo of Criss' face and held it up to her own face like a mask. Then she pulled out a metal duck caller and blew into it. Immediately the ducklings followed the sound of the quacking and the sight of Criss' face. Brenda clumped toward the pond, leading the ducklings to the water. They slid easily into the pond, making themselves at home within the space of a minute. Brenda waded into the pond, still hiding her face behind the photo and blowing the duck caller, keeping them distracted enough for Criss to take his leave.
Quietly, Criss returned to the groundskeeper cart. His cousin, George, accompanied him, if only to keep some nosy reporter from trying to cop a quick interview by commandeering the passenger seat. George could not help but notice the look of sorrow on Criss' face. "You okay?" he asked.
Criss looked up. "Hm? Oh, oh, yeah, I'm fine, really," he mumbled.
"You seem kinda depressed."
"No, really, I'm okay," Criss insisted.
The cart pulled away from the fifth hole. "You miss your little duckies, don't you?" George pressed.
"Well, yeah, kinda, sorta."
"Seems to me you're going through a case of empty nest syndrome."
Criss looked at George. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"
George wrapped his arm around his cousin's shoulder. "No, not really. Moms go through it all the time: devoting their lives to raising their kids, and then when they leave, they don't know what to do with themselves. But they're ducks, not kids. Yeah, I know it's tough at first, but you had to let 'em go sometime, y'know? They weren't meant to be kept as pets. It's against the law--you said so yourself. Like they say, if you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, you can keep it. If not, it was never meant to be yours."
"I get it, I get it," Criss said impatiently. "Thank you, Dr. Phil."
"All I'm saying is--"
"I know what you're trying to say, George. You're telling me to put this all behind me and get on with my life. Well, that's what I fully intend to do. I mean, I got my career to think about; my plate's full enough as it is without a bunch of ducks under my feet. Besides, Brenda's gonna take good care of them; I trust her for that. I'm happy for that."
"So, why the long face?" George pressed.
Criss thought long and hard about how to respond to that, but ended up blurting out the truth. "You ever become so emotionally attached to anything that it hurts to part with it? It's like when Dad died: a part of you just gets ripped out of your soul and all there's left is a gaping hole that you think will never be filled in. True, losing the ducklings isn't like losing a loved one, but you get the picture, don't you?"
George nodded, fully understanding what he had just said. "Sure, Criss, I get it," he said sympathetically. "We all experience a sense of loss in our lifetimes, whether it's a death in the family or the loss of a family pet." He hugged Criss' shoulder. "You'll get over it, I know you will. Just keep busy--that always helps."
The cart stopped by the clubhouse. Criss and George climbed out of the cart and into the van, brushing away all the reporters and cameramen. Criss didn't feel like staging a press conference at the moment; he just wanted to return to the Luxor and his career. Brenda was in charge of the ducklings now. He had kept his promise to her and to the ducklings to provide them with a new home, free from poachers and predators. There was no need for him to be there anymore.
(to be continued).