For Daksha and Eesha
Maya clutched her father’s hand as he wandered through the fair. New sights, sounds, and smells bombarded her. The scents of fried dough, powdered sugar, hot sausage, and cotton candy warred with manure, sweat, and machine oil. All around, people barked about games, shrieked on rides, and greeted one another in booming voices. The carnival rides creaked and groaned. When she could see past the sea of legs around her, she caught glimpses of bright plastic jewelry, discarded food, painted trailers, and stuffed animals.
Her father’s hand was the only thing that seemed real.
Then, she saw the ducks.
Tiny plastic ducks bobbed around a watery track. A pale young woman with too-black hair and crooked teeth beckoned Maya over. "Come play the Duck Game!" she called. "Everyone’s a winner!"
Maya tugged on her father’s hands. "I want to play with the ducks!" she said.
He smiled down at her and let her drag him over. He peeled limp dollar bills out of his wallet and passed them to the Duck Girl.
Maya stared at the ducks as they floated by. They came in more colors than she’d expected—yellow, red, blue, green, and purple ducks competed for her attention.
It was important to pick the right one.
Finally, her hand darted forward, and she snatched a green duck. She held it between her hands and kissed its bright orange bill.
"Maya," her father said, his voice full of warning.
Maya ignored him. The hard plastic softened under her fingers, transforming to downy green feathers. Its tiny feet kicked, and its tiny heart fluttered.
The Duck Girl held out a small stuffed animal. "Here’s your prize!" she said.
Maya ignored her. She had to focus on her duck, or something might go wrong.
"Stop it, Maya," her father said.
Maya’s duck quacked, and Maya laughed. The Duck Girl stared. She reached out and touched the green duckling’s bill. It snapped at her.
"Be nice, Ducky," Maya whispered.
Maya’s father gripped her shoulder. He was ready to run if the Duck Girl started screaming.
Maya didn’t think she would.
The Duck Girl stared at the duck for another long moment. Maya’s father stood very still.
Then, the Duck Girl pulled another stuffed animal—a pink unicorn—from the shelf behind her. "Can you—can you do that again?" she asked.
Maya’s father frowned at both of them. Maya gave him her best pleading expression. The Duck Girl’s eyes darted between them. "Please?" she said.
Maya’s father sighed. "Don’t tell anyone where you got it."
The Duck Girl squealed in delight. Maya’s father took her duckling from her, gently, and let Maya take the unicorn.
Changing it was easier—it wasn’t made of plastic.
When she was done, the Duck Girl handed her the first stuffed animal. It was a tiny bear wearing a black bow tie. "This is yours," she said, her voice soft. "Everyone’s a winner."
Maya’s father picked her up. "We should go," he said.
Maya waved at the Duck Girl.
The Duck Girl held her tiny unicorn close to her chest, and waved back.