Many thanks to my late night and early morning readers and more importantly my good friends Cedrix , Joanne and Síofra for taking the time to correct my always laughable grammar mistakes and for giving me the initial feedback I clearly require to post anything on this blog. They are amazing writers and entertaining bloggers. If you haven’t, be sure to visit their websites!
Every night after the sun went down a bullfrog came up from the creek that ran behind our apartment building and sat by the pansies next to our front door. He was so loud that my brother and I could hear him through the thick front door, across the living room and on the other side of our bedroom wall.
Chase took hours to fall asleep and I took minutes but tried to stay awake long enough for him to feel safe with the emptiness that came with my snoring.
“Why does he come up here?” Chase whispered from the trundle bed below me one night. Mom was talking louder than she normally did on the phone from her makeshift bedroom in the sunroom so I didn’t whisper as I normally would have.
“I don’t know.” I said turning to my side and yawning loud. Mom’s voice rose and fell then went quiet and came back in a rise of laughter she tried but failed to stifle.
Above her conversation and the hum of cars on the freeway on the other side of the woods behind our building we heard the elastic croak of the bullfrog.
“Does he want to eat us?” Chase said.
I laughed and asked how he thought something smaller than his foot could eat us. He reminded me about the black widows in the shed behind Dad’s house and I reminded him that they were poisonous and that frogs were not.
“Maybe he likes looking at the flowers.” I told him.
“There are prettier flowers down by the creek.”
“Do you want a story tonight?” I asked.
On the other side of the wall mom laughed again then went quiet and the ice maker rumbled and dropped its contents inside the freezer.
“No” he said then changed his mind and asked me to tell him the story I’d made up about the dolls that came to life and killed their owners.
“No way. You ratted me out to Mom last time.” I propped myself up on my elbow hit him with my pillow.
“Do you think the frog has a name?” He said holding his hand up to block another blow.
I climbed from my bed knowing without asking that something more than a flesh eating frog was bothering my brother and I pushed him over, pulled his at his blankets and covered my legs. I laid my head next to his on the pillow and spoke softer than I had before. “He can have one.” Then I thought and corrected myself, “He probably does but we’ll never know it unless you learn to speak frog.”
“Nope.” He said and I laughed and told him he’d learn frog 101 next year in second grade.
“We’ll call him Rrrrrobert” I said making a croaking sound with my voice.
“Ha.Ha.” He said to let me know he wasn’t amused, then put his skinny arm across my shoulder and let it hang onto my back.
In the morning I woke up when my Mom came crashing through the door in mid conversation about being late and how we didn’t have time for breakfast. I rubbed my eyes and saw that Chase was still sleeping.
She was wearing a black dress that came a few inches up from her knees and no stockings. Her legs shone when she moved and I thought they looked stupid, like she’d just gotten out of the pool, but I knew better than to say so.
“Cute shoes,” I said pointing to heels so high I couldn’t imagine playing dress up in them. Not that she’d ever let me play dress up in her clothes.
She rubbed lotion in her hands on her neck and protruding breasts and yelled at me to get up then turned and left the room.
“Get up chuck,” I slapped Chase on the butt through the thick quilts he was buried under. He groaned and I mentioned a giant frog. He stood up fast, covering me in blankets and laughing.
“Jerk,” he said causing his speech impediment to turn the ‘e’ into a ‘u.’ I imitated him and he jumped on me. I pushed him off the bed and moved toward him when Mom walked past our open doorway then turned around and screamed for us to get dressed.
“She’s in a mood,” Chase said after she’d gone into the bathroom to finish her makeup.
We dressed and put loose pages of unfinished homework in our backpacks. I took out two packages of pop tarts and two juice boxes and hurried Chase into his shoes while Mom looked for a necklace with the phone pressed to her ear and said something about our Dad to her friend Karen.
In the car I passed Chase’s breakfast to him and Mom turned around to pat my knee, “Thanks for making breakfast sweetie.” She turned the radio up and sang along to the theme song from friends while I ate my pop tart edges first, then middle, then moved on to the next one.
It was Tuesday and I knew we were going to our Dad’s after school so I reminded Chase and he smiled. Dad’s house meant TV during dinner and take out. He’d read to us before bed and wake us up in the morning for school with a warm bath running and grits on the stove. I smiled back and saw Chase’s face go blank.
“What?” I whispered.
“She’ll be all alone.” He said not pointing to Mom but looking at her checking her lipstick in the mirror while tapping on the breaks at a stop sign.
“She’ll be fine.”
I was annoyed at him for always being such a baby about Mom. Every time we left her he almost cried because he didn’t want her to be by herself even though I told him that she probably liked it more than when we were there. The idea that she was happy without us wasn’t something he was willing to accept so he ignored it and concentrated on the fact that she wasn’t safe alone.
We rode the last few minutes to school in silence and I spent all morning thinking about his face in that backseat and the way he sounded when he bemoaned her loneliness.
I found him at lunch in the cafeteria and snuck past the teachers on lunch duty to squeeze into the seat next to his. “Guess what I thought?” I told him while he scraped his fork through cold potatoes and gravy.
“Robert.” I said and he looked at me with confusion. I croaked and he nodded and smiled. “I think that’s why he’s there. To protect us because Dad can’t.”
Chase looked at me, then to his friends talking about power rangers on his right and waited for me to keep going. I lied and said that I’d read a story once that some frogs were princes.
“Yeah, I know,” he rolled his eyes “if you kiss a frog they turn into a prince.”
I hadn’t thought of that before but I used it in my story and told him that they didn’t always have to be someone you kissed to come to life. I told him that they were also protectors of women and children and if any harm came to our door they would rise up and their steel armor would glisten and they would kill whoever tried to do the one’s they guarded harm. I told him that Robert must have been an ancient prince sent to us because of our goodness and my natural beauty.
Chase laughed then got serious and asked if it was true. I felt a little guilty when I told him it was but the guilt washed away when I saw his face light up. He leaned in to me and broke off half of his cookie and told me that was the best news he’d heard all day.
“What other news have you heard today?” I made my best attempt at mockery.
“Subtraction.” He told me then the gym teacher saw my tall head among the short first graders and called out from his seat two tables over for me to get back to the 6th grade section. I stood up, leaned over and kissed Chase’s head so Mr. Hadley knew I was talking to my brother not ‘selling crack to the babies,’ like he always accused us of doing. I didn’t look at him when I walked by but smiled tightly, hoping it resembled the face Mom always gave Dad.
I tuned out my math teacher and wrote the elaborate story I’d concocted on the margin of the worksheet we were supposed to take home for homework that night. I did the same with my next three classes, successfully avoiding any English, Science, or Social Studies and had a full-fledged legend worked out by the time the bell rang at the end of the day.
I waited for Chase in the hallway between 1st grade and 2nd grade and lied again when I told him I’d gone to the library to check the book of the frog legend out. “Did you bring it with you?” He said, so excited that he ran into a kindergartner and knocked her down. I picked her up and he said he was sorry but only so he could get back to questioning me about the frog princes.
“No,” I said, taking him by the back of the backpack and forcing him to walk in front of me so he’d stop bumbling into people “I couldn’t. They said it’s a resource book and you can’t check it out.”
“Oh,” We both looked for Dad’s old pickup when we passed through the double doors, moved along by the steady flow of children breaking free into the sunlight and fresh air.
“But I wrote it all down and I’ll tell it to you after homework.”
He turned his head over his shoulder and smiled at me. We spotted dad at almost the same moment and we ran to the truck both hoping to get the middle seat so we could sit beside him. Dad leaned over and opened the passenger door and Chase climbed inside first, throwing his backpack at me to put in the back.
After snacks and a week’s worth of catching up Chase and I scattered to do our homework. “Do it right,” Dad reminded me as I walked through the garage door to my usual spot on the tailgate of his truck.
“Yes sir,” I said and hoped he didn’t know I meant to read Jane Eyre instead of doing Math. By the time poor Jane was out of her hellish childhood I heard Chase’s footsteps come up behind me and climb over the side. He sat down and waited for me to finish the chapter I was on.
“Almost done?” He asked when a few minutes had passed and I hadn’t put the book down. I held up a finger, turned the page and dog eared it.
“Now I am.” I turned around to face him, knowing why he was there.
“So it’s true?” He asked leaning forward, bony elbows resting on bony knees.
“Good,” Chase said leaning back “because I called Mom and told her.”
My heart beat fast while I wondered what she’d said to him. He looked relieved, not upset so I assumed she went along with it and had my thoughts confirmed when Chase said that Mom told him she’d forgotten about that legend but that it was true.
“See.” I breathed out, feeling hot for the first time since I’d been outside.
“She said she has a date tonight.” Chase smiled when he said it and I asked what he was so happy about. Normally he cried and threw up whenever she went out which was the opposite of what he did when she brought someone home after she thought we were asleep. Those nights he wouldn’t move in his bed or say anything to me at all so I laid next to him and told him made up stories and wondered why it mattered to him what she did and wondered why it didn’t matter to me.
“Ok….” I wanted him to tell me why he was so happy but knew I’d have to ask, so I did and when he told me that he thought the frog prince would kill whoever she brought home with her that night I looked at the house behind us and wished with all I had that Dad would come through the door in the garage and call us inside or ask if he could check over the homework I hadn’t even started yet, but the house was quiet.
I looked back at Chase and said, “That isn’t how it works.”
Right then I wished that made up stories could become real and that Robert would rise up and slay whoever knocked on the door to pick my Mom up for their date that night. I wished that he would change from a frog into a prince without my mom having to kiss him, knowing that she would never kiss anything ugly and slimy. I closed my eyes and even as I wished I knew that dreams didn’t come true and that frog prince’s were made up and that I was a liar breaking my best friend’s heart.
“Maybe it is.” Chase said before Dad came outside bouncing a basketball and asked me how my book was. I put the fat paperback inside my book bag on top of the stray papers that made up a new legend and I reminded myself to tell Chase the detailed version I’d spent all day working on before bed.
I looked at Dad and apologized, he laughed and reminded me that there were windows in the house and that he could always read guilt on my face. I wondered what guilt he read when he looked at me then.
We played a game of HORSE and I lost like I always lost to my Dad and brother, then we ate pizza and watched John Wayne in the Green Beret for the hundredth time.
Dad kneeled down to my bed that night and we both said a prayer. He asked if anything was bothering me and I said yes but I couldn’t talk about it.
“You know when you can, I’m here.” He said and I nodded and wanted to cry.
“I have to go back to work tomorrow,” he said and I knew that was the end of the fun for another week.
“Why?” I hoped I didn’t sound like I was whining then asked if he told Chase and if Mom knew to pick us up from school the next day.
“You know, you shouldn’t act like such an adult,” Dad said leaning over to kiss me goodnight, “You only get one childhood and you shouldn’t waste yours by worrying.”
I told him I’d try and he said he loved me before shutting the door and leaving me to the half-darkness covered in moonlight and the rattling of cicadas outside my window.
Mom did forget Chase and I the next day at school and we had to wait with the principal until she could get to us. Embarrassed and annoyed she apologized to Mrs. Barnes over our heads and herded us into the car with questions about our night at Dad’s and our day in school.
That night as we lay in our beds we heard the usual noises. The refrigerator turned on and off, the TV carried on its own conversation in an empty room, and Mom talked on the phone about how our Dad gave us pizza for dinner again but nothing called out over her voice. No rhythmic croaking let us know our prince had come. Chase sat up and looked at me.
“Where is he?”
I shook my head and before I could stop him Chase stood and opened the door to our bedroom. I followed him, hoping to pull him back before he got to Mom but was too late. She apologized to Karen on the phone and told her to hold on while she asked Chase to repeat what he’d said.
“The bullfrog is gone!” He moved away from her toward the living room heading straight for the front door when she stopped him with her words. “Oh that thing.”
Chase turned and I prayed to the god of frog princes and made up stories.
“He wouldn’t shut up last night and Jeremy went out and got rid of him.”
When Chase said nothing I looked at Mom whose forehead wrinkled and gave her face, freshly clean of makeup, the appearance of an old lady.
“We couldn’t sleep.” She said and I closed my eyes.
“Where is he?” I could hear Chase’s voice tremble, a sure sign of tears to come.
“Hold on Karen,” Mom said into the phone, “I think Jeremy threw him in the creek after he killed him.” She began talking to Karen again then pointed her finger for us to get to bed.
“Oh,” Mom called out to our backs in a voice brimming with all the excitement of Christmas morning “You’ll meet Jeremy tomorrow, he’s coming over for dinner.”
I waited for Chase to go first, careful not to touch his shoulders for fear that he would shatter as he walked in front of me down the hall.
“You can sleep in your bed.” Chase said when he’d laid down and pulled the covers to his chin. I told him alright and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t sleep at all.
Callie Armstrong © 2014