We start out dry as a bone, stuffed up in the rafters like the old, overstuffed toys that they use our discoloured rumps and hooked heads to swindle the clientele. Only, the Stuffed Ones know, one day or another, they’re going to escape. They will find themselves in a house, hugged and loved. We don’t get that luxury. We are not prizes, we are workers. Sometimes we can go full days round and round our meagre ponds, bumping into one another incessantly as ringed-sticks poke, prod and upend us. Other days, a few of us are forgotten, left in dusty nooks and crannies without having the chance to get our feathers wet. The saving grace: the smile a kid gets when they hook you. Not that I would know. There have been near-successes, sure, my hook has been scraped a whole eleven times and my eyes have been jabbed on one hundred and six occasions. And I’ve been flipped over completely ninety-four times. It’s enough to make a duck depressed. “Hook and Win,” hollers today’s Mr Hook’n’Win, a rangy, floppy thing made of flamboyant limbs and gold piercings. His voice, deep as a full-flight canary’s, frightens away more customers than it brings. I think he is somebody’s son, he looks a lot like Tuesday’s trouper. I watch the children come and go over the years, long-haired ones, scalpy-ones, spiky-ones. Often they come in packs, like relaying wolves certain that in time they will group around their half-dead goldfish and poke at its plastic cage. They will form attachments in minutes that will rupture in days. Every night, I float purposefully aimless, drifting to and fro appealingly, trying to pique their interest. Every night, I am forced to watch as 7, 11, 4, 8, 3, 5, 21 and 16 are again and again drawn up and out, dripping their achievement over all of us yet to taste the exhilaration of a Lift. “You get bored of it,” 7 says, as he jockeys past me, the ferris wheel’s light still in his eyes. “Trust me. See one smile and you’ve seen them all.” 7 is my archnemesis. He is the yellowest of us all, the least sun-damaged and with a hook that I swear every Mr Hook‘n’Win polishes every night. Nobody else’s gleams like that! What’s more telling is that 7 is given pride of place on the shelf. The rest of us just have to watch, side-eye jealous, as he peers up through a perfectly positioned hole in the roof. “Super Blood Moon,” he says. “Eclipse,” he says. “Shooting star,” he says. His clique, those other many-Lifted, gush and ooh at everything, goosing him on. I hate him with every silicon fibre of my being. I get bored of you, I don’t say, in a delayed reply three days later when he gets Lifted again. The boy who holds him aloft has an ear-to-earer, the best smile a hooked duck can achieve. That’s how you earn your shelf-space, right there. He trades the catch for a drooping princess Minnie. I think about colliding with 7 a little more than agreed in our contracts, jostling him towards the back of the pond and those infirm ducks who are just happy to get wet. It would be so easy and if I timed it just right I could pretend it was the disturbance created by an overeager, over-stretching child. I could. I really could. “Don’t,” says a voice from on high. I look up, so far as I can, and am presented with the other critters of our travelling troupe. They hang from the precarious pegs about the front of the stall, living balloons sloshing in the wind. Unlike us, they change hands far more frequently, but a lot of them end up tossed on the ground, suffocating amongst discarded hot-dogs and crumpled cans. I had to watch one die like that once. I had been knocked clean off the pond by a father juggling kids and a bag of candy floss, my head consigned to the dirt. The bag must have been faulty and subsequently squirrelled away out of sight, because it was empty but for the barest of pools. A plastic wrinkle ebbing by the hour. For the longest of time, I was envious of the goldfishs’ Life, their carbon-ness, but after watching that one succumb alone in the dark on a bed of flattened grass, I thank my hook I am a silicon duck. “Once it happens…” the goldfish continues sometime later as if the conversation had never stopped flowing, “your perception will change…” The faux current takes us away from one another. “You will start to see… you will understand the…” However, on the fifth time I round the central pillar that sits in the centre of the pond, the goldfish is retreating away into the Outside. I catch a glimmer of a hand removing his half-filled home. I watch him go like so many others, a bagged thing for a caught thing, and can’t help but hate him a little too. For all his pontificating he too had gotten away. Escaped the monotony of round and round and round. Three days pass: “Stars,” 7 says. “Crescent moon,” 7 says. “Emptiness,” 7 says. The one who answers my prayers is wrapped up in such a puffy pink coat that she looks like the stall over’s freshly wrapped candy-floss. And for a second, I think it is all a dream, that I am falling upwards into clouds of airy nothing, waiting for the other shoe to fall. She has pig-tails and glitter on her cheeks, and a stuffed shark under her arm. At first I am a little wary of it, ducks and sharks don’t make the best of bedfellows, but its black eyes are directed elsewhere, scenting ketchup on the wind. The girl’s mother squees in delight. “That’s it, Lia! Careful now…” It is a rush. I cannot describe the feeling of being hooked. It is like connection, like a handshake between more than acquaintances, like a rightness in the world. I see 7 looking up at me, irate and pouting, and take great satisfaction when a stray drip falls from me onto his immaculate bill. The elation, as the goldfish acutely imparted, however, dilutes fast. The pond looks so small, the Outside too big. What is a duck to do with all that dryness? It’s the being borne aloft that stupefies a Lifted duck, I understand now, the chaotic lack of control. With Mr Hook’n’Win I know I am safe because I know the routine and I know the man, whomsoever he is on that day. Up here, now, I feel the weight of myself. I am trade, currency, coin. But, more than that, I am responsible. That last eats at me the most. Every prize that leaves this place will do so because of me, because I have been captured and swapped. Every stuffed toy squashed into a box and put up in the attic to gather dust and become a victim to rodent runoff will have its tragic origin in me. For a second, I feel like I am going to have a heart attack, there and then, scarring the child and everyone else around for life, but then I see it: unfettered delight, basking in the glow of toffee-apples and waffles. This girl is looking at that Spongebob with eyes as big as mountains. I did that. Me. My rump hits the pond, and I see 7 and see him not as a jealous competitor now, but a pitying brother-in-arms. He has lost the wonder of these moments, made tales out of them for the rest of us to rise in pointless rank. He sails past me, and says “See!” and I laugh for the first time since I was manufactured. I move past him, edging inwards and outwards, disregarding all those High Hook zones I once fought for and just idle. The pond has never felt so big.
Ashley Bullen-Cutting is a writing human from the UK (please do not remind him of this fact). His poetry and prose has featured in over a dozen journals, and sometimes gets read. He is currently the fiction editor at Barren Magazine. Twitter: @abullencutting.