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A pair of ducks

After Mom found The Magic Lego that Saved Vacation, we steered the Covered Wagon back into the mountains. We followed the Wagon Trail until it brought us far into the sky, where the stars are the only lights and people use the dog bathroom. We slept at base camp, which would have been like a six star motel with its flat car kennel, one bar of Witch service, and only one other car camping far on the other side of the kennel. It was perfect except that the people bathroom was locked.

“I still don’t understand what locking the bathrooms achieves,” Mom grumbled as she hid behind a rock to use the dog bathroom where the other wagon couldn’t see her. “What’s the difference, Mom?” I said. “You use the dog bathroom all the time. When you use the people bathroom you need to wash your hands or you could catch the boogeyvirus.” “When there’s a bathroom I’d prefer to use it. They don’t even provide hand sanitizer in those things, so it’s not like they’re closed because they ran out of Purell and you can’t wash your hands! Half the time they don’t even have toilet paper! Cheese Louise!” “Remember? We saw that story about how toilets spit the boogeyvirus into the air?” I reminded her. “That’s why you’re supposed to hold it until the government tells you it’s okay to go. Isn’t that why everyone’s so grouchy lately? Because they need to go potty?” “The toilet doesn’t even flush…!” Mom said, and threw up her hands in exasperation before smearing them with dirt and hand sanitizer.

Mom stayed up late canoodling with The Witch now that The Witch was talking to her and no longer in danger of starvation. I woke up in the dark to the sound of another car crunching into the car kennel, the mmm-tsss mmm-tsss mmm-tsss of dance music, the thump of slamming doors, and then people talking and laughing in their outdoor voices. “Don’t you know it’s rude to wake people up in the middle of the night?” I barked into the dark at them.  “They probably think we’re camping,” Mom sighed.  Mom’s brain doesn’t work so well in the morning, so I pointed out the obvious. “We are camping, two spots away.”  “I mean they probably think we’re in a tent somewhere, although it’s pretty clear people are sleeping in the pop-up camper, so I guess they’re just assholes.”

Another thing the Babblers Who Go Bump in the Night didn’t know about Mom was that she has a superpower: once she’s awake, she never, ever, ever falls back asleep again no matter what. So even though Mom had promised that we could sleep in until it was day, she broke her promise. We lay still, pretending to sleep until the Babblers had stopped shining their headlights toward our windows and buzzed off up the trail, and then Mom crept out of the Wagon just as the shapes of trees started to appear out of the dark. 

The trail was not only the shortest one planned for our trip, but it was also the easiest, and it got a little boring after a couple of minutes. “Remember about the counting, Mom?” I said. “Why don’t we do that again? Especially the part where I get lots of snacks.”  “I’m too tired to listen to my own thoughts today,” Mom sighed. “Okay, tell me a story then,” I said. “How about this one about a flea and a dog: Once upon a time there was a flea who saw a delicious looking dog across the room. He said, ‘I am hungry and I shall bite him.'” “I’m a delicious looking dog!” I said. “I don’t think I like this story, even though I take my medicine and I’m poisonous to fleas. Is the flea going to die?” “Don’t worry, it has a happy ending,” Mom said. Then she went on, “The room was very large and the flea would have long way to travel before he could bite the dog, so he decided, ‘I will jump half the distance to the dog on my first jump, and then half of the remaining distance on my next jump, and then half of that distance on the third jump. That way I will save my energy and I won’t be too tired when I reach the dog.” “Are you and the flea related?” I asked. “That sounds like the kind of foolishness you’d come up with.” Mom ignored me. “So after one jump the flea only had half the distance still to travel. And on the next jump a quarter. Then an eighth. Then a sixteenth…” “You know dogs can’t do math. What happened next?” I asked. The suspense was killing me. “No matter how many times he jumped, there was still more space to go and he never arrived,” Mom said. “Yeah, but surely at some point he could have just craned his little flea neck and bitten the dog. Or did he keep his commitment and die of frustration before he reached the dog?” “Um… It’s a paradox.” “What’s a pair of ducks got to do with a flea?” “It means that a cat that was behind on her flea medication came along and the flea bit her instead. And the dog was saved. The moral of the story is that the shorter I try to make this damned hike, the longer it gets.”

We hiked like the flea, with Mom cutting the trail into smaller and smaller slices so that we would never arrive. Just when I thought Mom would die of frustration, we walked out into the sun and climbed the final rock at the summit. The trail’s steepness had been shallow, but right below our toes the other side of the mountain disappeared into thin air. Other cracked half-peaks lined up in the near distance, and behind them the full variety pack of mountains drew a spikey line like the stock market against the sky. We sat at the edge of the rock while Mom took a few pictures, and then suddenly she froze. Without moving her butt a millimeter, she peeked past the edge of the rock we were sitting on. “Oh dog doo, that is a HUGE cliff,” she said.  “Nonsense,” I said. “See, there are the tops of trees. That means there’s land below us.”  “Yeah, but what’s around those trees? A whole lotta nothing, that’s what!” Mom said. “I don’t think there’s another level below us, I think they’re just on a small ledge and then…” She got up very, very carefully and backed away from the edge. Then she picked up a rock and threw it.  “I’ll get it!” I said. “OSCAR, NO!” Mom screamed in such a blood curdling voice that I froze mid-jump just like she had and stuck my butt to the rock. “What?” I said.

But she just stood there with her head cocked like she was listening. So I listened too. A long moment later I heard a very far away, very quiet thump. “Mom… where did the rock go?” I asked.  “It’s in those trees down there,” Mom gulped. She pointed with her chin, just in case holding her arm out toward the cliff threw off her balance and she toppled forward over 10 feet of flat rock and off the edge. My eyes followed the line of her chin into the trees that were so far away that they looked like a piney smudge. “That’s impossible,” I said. “I’ve seen you throw. You can’t even throw a rock over the net on a tennis court.” Then it dawned on me what she meant.

We climbed off the big rock at the summit much more carefully than we’d climbed up, and then we started walking down the hill. “Ugh, I wish we didn’t have 2 hours ahead of us,” Mom grumped. “We could have run this trail.”  “We could run it now,” I pointed out.  “I’m not wearing the right kind of backpack,” Mom said. But soon she saw the wisdom in my plan. Packpack or no, she decided that the shoulder skin around the straps wasn’t that important, and she began plonking down the hill, holding the straps so her elbows flapped out beside her like chicken wings. She did her funny waddling run for a couple of minutes and then stopped to walk for a minute or two, “So I don’t chafe holes in my shoulders,” she explained. But soon the doldrums got to her again and she started running. It was a fun game, and sometimes I chased her, sometimes I ran ahead of her, testing myself to see if I could guess without looking when she was going to change speeds again.

“Hey, Mom!” I said. “Let’s play a game. I’ll give you a head start and race you to the bottom.” “You know, that’s another one of those paradoxes. Because while you’re catching up to where I was, I’ll be pulling ahead.” “Huh?” “It’s another one of those paradoxes,” Mom said, waddling ahead and thinking herself very smart indeed. “You can’t catch me!” “Let me teach you something about philosophy,” I called after her. Then I passed her and she ate my dust. We walked for a minute, and then proved Zeno’s Pair of Ducks wrong over and over until we were back at the Wagon an hour ahead of schedule.

Oscar the Pooch


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