Chapter 1: Duane Awakes, Finds Himself Among Friends, and then Finds Someone Less Friendly
1. DUANE AWAKES, FINDS HIMSELF AMONG FRIENDS, AND THEN FINDS SOMEONE LESS FRIENDLY
ONE DELIGHTFULLY BITTER, COLD morning, Duane woke up from a long, long, very long nap. He stretched what needed stretching. He scratched what needed scratching. He yawned for a full minute and a half. With the claws of his front paw, he brushed his white polar bear fur until he felt that he looked presentable. Then he ventured out of his cave.
“Hello, Duane,” said the half dozen individuals already gathered. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Duane smiled sleepily. The bright sunshine caused his eyes to narrow, but even still, he could see that everyone who mattered to him was there.
“Hello, C.C.,” he said to his friend, a snowy owl.
“What’s up, Magic?” he asked his friend, an arctic fox.
“Morning, Major Puff,” he said while saluting his friend, a puffin.
“Lovely to see you, Twitch,” he said to his friend, an arctic hare.
“Salutations, Handsome,” he said to his friend, a musk ox.
“Hi, Boo,” he whispered to his skittish friend, a caribou.
Certain that no one had been left out, Duane opened his big, powerful arms as wide as they could spread. “Group hug, everyone!” he declared. And then he pulled all his friends in close, except for C.C., who flew up in the air because, as she’s always maintained, she is not a touchy-feely kind of owl.
“So what did I miss?” Duane asked.
“What did you miss?” said Magic incredulously. “What did you miss? What didn’t you miss, would be the easier question, Duane.” Magic has a tendency to overexcite. The others shuffled their feet or groomed themselves absentmindedly until her point was made and conversation could continue. “You’ve slept through most of the winter. There have been blizzards and iceberg breakings and strange creature sightings and at least a billion other things. I mean, really!”
Duane nodded apologetically, which is Magic’s favorite response. Then he said, “In that case, let’s begin with what I didn’t miss, since the list would surely be smaller.”
“You didn’t miss the comet, which, according to my calculations, will be flying above us in two weeks. Two weeks!” squealed C.C. with a shudder of delight before gaining control of herself.
“Fortunately for you, you haven’t missed my gripping solo reenactment of the Great Puffin War of Eighteen-Something-Or-Other,” declared Major Puff proudly. “Will there be marching, you ask? Oh, yes, there will be plenty of marching!” At which Major Puff proceeded to demonstrate by marching around the group with feet raised high.
“And you didn’t miss my upcoming birthday, thank goodness,” said Handsome, “because etiquette would then require that I give you cold harsh glares of disappointment. Such expressions never look good on me, and all that face-tightening just adds wrinkles.”
“You didn’t miss my first attempt at public singing,” whispered Boo.
“What was that?” asked Duane, but Boo just shook her head self-consciously and hid behind Handsome.
Before any plans for the day could be suggested by his friends, a breeze carried the sweet smell of wild berries up to Duane’s nose, which he inhaled to his great delight. His stomach, now stirred and fully awake, wasted no time in growling a plan of action that Duane obediently relayed to the others. “I think a post-nap snack is what’s necessary. We could all visit the berry bushes on the way to the Fabulous Beach for a picnic.”
Duane’s friends know there is no point in arguing with Duane’s stomach, and there are worse things to do than spend a day at the beach in one another’s company. With little fuss, they made their way down the hillside toward the ocean’s edge.
“Might we stop briefly at my abode so I can take along my brush?” asked Handsome. “I find the salt air tangles my hair, leaving it a matted mess.”
“Ooh, and if we pop by me and the Major’s place,” said Twitch, “I’ll bring along some meringue cookies I whipped up this morning. And some carrot cake and a selection of tarts.”
“Then that’s what we shall do,” agreed Duane.
“But Duane,” moaned Magic, while flopping on the ground and sighing very dramatically, “then we will never get there!”
“We will. I’m absolutely sure of it.” He gave Magic a smile for encouragement. “Major Puff, would you do us the honor?”
“Understood,” said the puffin, who rushed toward the front of the group. “Follow me, lads! Left, right, left, right, and so on!”
Duane lingered back, allowing everyone to proceed before him. He took a moment to acknowledge his fortunate circumstances. To think that he’d come to the Very, Very Far North from somewhere else and was able to make himself a home that was cozy, and friends who meant the world to him. Duane sighed, and without a doubt, it was a happy sigh. The day was proving itself to be a very pleasant one, requiring little effort on Duane’s part to keep it so. In a short while, he would be eating sweet nibbles and warming his belly under a springtime sun.
But just as he was about to join his friends, a most disagreeable rush of noise overwhelmed him. Clanging and booming and bonging and rumbling, the cacophony was so loud and violent, it shook the ground beneath his paws.
Oh my, thought Duane.
Was it an earthquake? An avalanche? These were questions best left for a less chaotic interlude. At that moment, Duane could only manage to reach up and cover his ears as the din continued to assault him from all sides. He wanted to run away and find safety, but he couldn’t. His legs were wobbly, unresponsive; they wouldn’t move forward no matter how much he willed them to. Duane was terrified.
Meanwhile, his friends were moving farther and farther away. Soon they would be gone, out of sight and out of hearing range. Oddly enough, they seemed unaffected by the deafening noise. Could they not hear it? Why was it not throwing them off-balance like it was doing to him? These, too, were questions best left for later. Right now, Duane needed their help. He yelled for them to come back, or at least he tried to, because while his legs might have been unsteady, his voice was just plain stuck. It made no sense. His jaw was wide open, his intentions were urgent, yet nothing came out of his mouth but a silent scream.
Now, before you get too swept up in the unsettling, even scary situation I’ve just described, I will take this moment to tell you that nothing in this story so far is real. Duane hadn’t really greeted his friends or planned a picnic or suddenly found himself helplessly in the grasp of an overpowering ruckus. That is because Duane was still in his cozy cave, lying on his soft mattress, having a terrible, terrible nightmare. I apologize. I should have been more forthcoming about this fact. It’s just that in my opinion, no story is ever improved by telling a reader that it has all been a dream. Yet in this case, it’s unavoidable. Duane was asleep, albeit fitfully, and even if his nightmare scream was soundless, his real scream—the one that finally woke him up—was very, very loud, as you will soon learn.
Duane sat up in an instant. His face was flushed, and his body was trembling. Those of you who have had bad dreams may recognize Duane’s confusion as he took in his surroundings, found his bearings, and realized that he was no longer in the dream but back in his cave, alone.
“Oh my,” he whispered aloud.
But although he was awake, the noise had not ceased.
Bong! Clang! Clang! Bong! Clang!
The source of Duane’s nightmare was apparently coming from the grandfather clock tucked in the corner. How unexpected, thought Duane. For as long as he had had the old timepiece, it had offered nothing in the way of conversation but a steady, calm, and reasonably quiet tick-tock. Now, for some unexplained reason, it had decided to add pealing and tolling to the mix, and was doing such, I should add, with reckless abandon.
Clang! Dong! Bong! Bong!
This was most strange. The grandfather clock no longer had hands on its face to tell general time, and therefore had forgone its duty to announce any specific time. Since relocating the clock from the Shipwreck many, many months ago, Duane felt he had come to understand the language of tick-talking, so from his point of view, the clock must surely be upset about something important and needed to make it abundantly clear.
“There, there,” Duane said to it gently as he walked over. “What seems to be the problem?”
To his surprise, and to yours, too, I should imagine, the grandfather clock spoke back. Amid all the clangs and bongs, an angry voice from within yelled, “Where is it?”
Duane took this in stride. He figured that if he was able to understand clock language, it stood to reason that given enough time, the clock would learn to speak his. “Where is what?” Duane asked.
Bong! Clang! Clang! “Argh! Come on, where did it go?”
Duane leaned in closer. “Perhaps if you describe what you’re looking for, I can help you.”
“Arrrgh!” growled the clock, seemingly ignoring Duane’s generous offer.
But was it the clock speaking? Now that Duane was closer, he could hear other sounds besides the clanging and the yelling. He could hear scurrying and scraping as well. Intrigued, Duane used his claws to pry open the long, thin panel on the clock’s belly. What he saw inside the grandfather clock, among the weights and chains, the pendulum and other metal doodads noisily flying about, was a small, furry creature who appeared to be in the middle of a big, furious tantrum.