FictionSummer 2018

American Toad – Ace Boggess

Folks in Charleston called it frog-pocalypse, because that was the trendy thing to do.  It toyed with a notion of the zombie apocalypse from popular culture so that everything became apocalyptic in the same way Watergate morphed into Contra-gate, Cattle-gate, Bridge-gate, and a hundred other -gates as if the word were a natural suffix.  We’d already been through the aqua-pocalypse: a chemical leak soured all drinking water with the sweet stink of licorice—no one could swallow it or bathe in it for weeks.  Then there was snow-pocalypse, when two feet of the white stuff fell—a lot even for our hilly part of the world.  Now it was frogs.  Well, American toads, actually.  Thousands of them.  Hundreds of thousands.  Grayish brown with hints of emeralds and rust, they covered the trees like armored squirrels and dotted gardens and lawns like rocks.  The air smelled like dead fish and cat piss.  We were blighted, plagued.  I half-expected to see Charlton Heston standing in the road, holding a stick, and roaring, “Let my people go!”  But this was West Virginia, and we were no one’s chosen.

Nobody really knew what caused the mass arrival of toads.  There were theories, of course.  We heard them every night on the news, put forth by goofy meteorologists trying to straddle the line between sarcasm and seriousness.  Most said our bitterly cold winter broke open the back roads in too many places to fix, after which our rainy spring filled in the potholes with water.  Those pools of murk then became breeding grounds for frogs and mosquitos.  If so, it was probably mosquito-pocalypse, too, although folks didn’t hang around outside long enough to test that notion.  Instead, we watched through our windows as the ground seemed to ooze like a lava lamp.

If we did go out, we never dared to step through a doorway without using a foot to brush the path.  Toads were all over the place, and stepping on one felt like squashing a rotten tomato—a tomato that let out tiny shrieks like the sounds of mice in the walls.

Almost everyone in town stayed home.  The city had been shut down.  Restaurants and convenience stores remained closed.  Even the two nearest Walmart superstores kept their doors locked, their parking lots empty.  To look out our back window at the view across the river, we saw most streets bare except for freckles that moved.  Candy and I were shut in, too.  We didn’t trust the driving conditions.  Plus, how many dead toads would it take to destroy the engine of a BMW, to clog up the belts and pipes with guts?

In some ways, we were lucky.  We had plenty of food, enough bottled water and sodas, a surplus of K-cups for the Keurig, liquor and beer left over from our last shindig, and even a backup generator should the power go out, although one of us would have to ford the river of amphibians to get to it and crank it up.

We weren’t so fortunate in one regard: after the third day of the frog-pocalypse, Candy’s prescription of Oxycontin ran out.  Just a few weeks from her last treatment, she still felt horrible pain in her back and shoulders where the tumors had been.  These agonies grew tenfold on the first day after her last pill.  By noon, she had a look in her eyes that swore, I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch, as if the toads were my fault, as if I’d conjured them just to make her suffer.  Her eyes went dark with rage.  I could swear her vivid amethysts turned to coal.

Come dinnertime, Candy was shaking and sweating.  She couldn’t eat.  She sipped from a bottle of water, but soon hunched over the toilet, heaving up clear fluid.

I did what I could, spending much of the day trying to reach her oncologist. I left several messages with his answering service.  A different woman answered each time and promised she’d have Dr. Richland call me back as soon as possible.  He didn’t.  The toads kept him at home, too, I imagine, and apparently were so bad where he lived that they forcefully prevented him from punching numbers on his phone.  Not that it mattered.  I knew he couldn’t just dial up the pharmacy—if one happened to be open—and demand, “Give Candace Hart some Oxycontin!”  No, not with a strong drug like that.  Those prescriptions had to be hand-written, which meant I’d need to meet him somewhere to collect the note.  I was willing to make the effort, although the BMW’d never be the same.

*

That night, Candy didn’t sleep.  She shivered and groaned, sweating through the sheets despite her skin’s clammy chill.  A few times, I thought I heard her breathing slow.  Even then, it lasted only moments before she was up and out of bed, running toward the bathroom.  After Candy closed the door, the vomiting and diarrhea sounded identical.

I must have drifted off about three a.m., the last time I remembered looking at the clock.  It felt weird how relaxed I was.  The out-of-sync squawking of the toads soothed me like one of those nature soundtracks that’s supposed to help you sleep.  Toad songs did the trick, unlike the usual heavy metal concerts put on nightly by crickets or cicadas—which, come to think of it, I hadn’t heard since the frog-pocalypse began.

In the morning, I awoke to discover Candy’s side of the bed empty.  I patted it to be sure, as if my eyes often lied.  Then I got up and went to look for her.  I found her on the living-room floor.  She was naked and curled up on her side, her body squirming and making slow circles on the beige carpet.  I saw the fresh spikelets of brown hair rising from her scalp like early wheat.  Her fiery reddish-orange wig had slipped down.  She held it to her face and sobbed into it.

I went to my knees and pressed a hand to her bare back.

She flinched.

“Candy, honey….”

Her wig muffled the sound of a scream.  Her fists clenched, squeezing the fake hair as if trying to rip it apart.

“Baby, come up out of the floor.  Let me help you.”

She wailed something through her wig.  It sounded like “Duck glue!”

“I’m trying, baby.  Tell me what to do.”

She pulled the wig away, revealing equally red cheeks, damp and swollen.  “Make it stop,” she groaned, before smothering herself again with her disguise.

“I will,” I said.  I meant it.  I would.  But how?

I tried the doctor again.  This time, even his answering service didn’t pick up.  No voicemail, either.  The line rang until I ended the call.

Stepping into the study, I slipped my iPhone in a back pocket of my cargo shorts, then rubbed my forehead with two fingers, fighting off a headache and hoping I could force myself to think.  Think!

The answer—could it be that simple?—slapped me like a splash of cold water.  Candy needed her medicine.  I still had her medicine.  Not the strong stuff she’d been taking, sure … but something.  She’d gone through several different drugs before Dr. Richland switched her to Oxycontin.  Some of the pills made her sick.  Others didn’t help as the pain intensified.  When he wrote the first script for Oxycontin, Dr. Richland sighed as if the act were distasteful to him, or as if it were inevitable.  His gray pyramid eyebrows seemed to sag.  He told me to make sure she didn’t abuse the drugs, which I agreed to do.  He also demanded that I dispose of all her other pills.  He said he didn’t want her to mix medications or accidentally overdose.  I promised him that I would, then assured Candy that I had.  Yet I kept them—for what purpose, I’m not sure—then forgot about them until now.

I went to the closet, opened the door, and dropped to my knees.  The pill bottles were buried under worn towels and rags in an old white leather bag that once carried my grandfather’s bowling ball to his weekly game.  My dad claimed it after his papa died.  It was beaten up and cracked, brown veins streaking the leather with a fishnet pattern.  Dad never used it for anything.  He stashed it on a shelf in his garage.  Two years ago, I asked him why he kept it, and he said, “You’re right.  It’s yours.  You take it.”  Now I knew the answer to my question.  He kept it for the same reasons I did: no one would want the bag, and it felt somehow wrong to throw it away.

Sifting through the towels, I dug out five bottles.  One was green, the other four amber.  I read the label on the green one: Tramadol.  I doubted that would help.  The pills in the first amber bottle I recognized as a nausea medicine.  That might be useful, but it wouldn’t solve the problem.  Then there was an antibiotic.  I twisted off the lid and counted half a dozen bi-colored capsules, wondering why she hadn’t taken those.  Resealing the bottle, I moved on to the other two.  The label on the first read MS Contin, the second oxycodone/acetaminophen.

“Jackpot!” I said, my voice echoing in the mostly empty closet.  “But which one?”  One had Oxy in its name, and the other had Contin.  “Half and half,” I muttered.  “Well, one of them better work.”  I kept these two and slid the other three back into my grandfather’s bag, which I then replaced in the closet.

*

Back in the living room, I squatted down next to Candy, balancing on the balls of my feet.  I put my hand over the blue, black, and red snake tattooed on the pit of her back.  “Hey.”

She startled, moaned, slid on her belly like a snake herself.

“Candy,” I said.

Candy groaned.

“Candy, look.”

She turned her head slightly, lowering the wig.  When she saw the amber bottles, she swung the rest of her body around.  Her breasts were red from pressing against the carpet, her stomach streaked and lined like my grandfather’s bag.  “Where did you…?”

“I held on to these.  Who knows, maybe one will help.”

She sat up, leaving her red wig as a wet blob splashed across the floor.  She took my hands in hers as if afraid to touch the bottles herself.  She read the labels and said, “This one,” tugging at my left hand.  It was the one that read oxycodone/acetaminophen.  “It’s the same thing, just weaker.  It’s not meant to last as long.”

Pulling my hands away, I finished reading the label.  The dose read 10/325 mg.  I unscrewed the cap.  There were fifteen to twenty oblong white tablets inside.  “How many?”

“Two,” she said.  “No, three.  I need them to work fast.”

I gave her what she wanted and watched as she swallowed the pills without water, grimacing and gagging only for a second.  Immediately, she calmed, smiling.  I knew the pain and trembling hadn’t gone away, but it seemed as though just her knowing they would was enough to soothe her.

Candy leaned forward and wrapped her arms around my knee, squeezing.  One of her nipples rubbed against my hairy calf.  The sprouts on her scalp came up and jabbed at my chin.

I couldn’t maintain my balance in the squat, so I dropped to the floor and held her back.

She said, “Jim, I didn’t want you to see me like this.”

“I didn’t,” I promised.  “I was never here.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “I guess I should find some clothes.”

“Why bother?” I whispered, figuring the toads would keep guests away.

“Manners,” she replied.

I couldn’t tell if she meant hers or mine.

*

The cable and internet went out around noon, but both came back a couple hours later.  Which part bothered me more, I wondered.  Was it the thought of being trapped here for days with nothing to dull my brain but liquor and nothing to stare at but the outside world through a window while American toads sometimes stared back in at me?  Or was it the mental gore as I imagined rows of cable trucks roaming the city, crushing everything in sight as if giant feet tapdancing over bubble wrap and paintball pellets?  Boredom plays tricks with the brain, but the mind knows what it knows.

I soon slipped back into the fog of forgetting once the constant coverage of frog-pocalypse resumed on the local news.  I slumped back in my cyan recliner and watched as the balding weatherman joked about Armageddon.  He pointed at a map of West Virginia depicting the expected path the toads would take as if they were an inland hurricane.  Two days ago, the affected area had been one big blob of red over central and southern parts of the state.  Now that red fanned southward, thinning and spreading like the radiation pattern after a nuclear accident.

Oh, I loved this stuff.  I could sit here watching disaster coverage for days.  It was like after the Towers fell.  The lone thing that could satiate my hollowness was a constant filling with information, however awful it might be.  It’s something I picked up while working at the dealership.  During dead times between customers, I’d stare at one of the four giant screens carefully placed around the showroom.  Whenever calamity happened, I saturated my cells with news.  I watched CNN, where the reporters, in their haste to tell the story first, often got the facts wrong, only to correct them later.  I stood mesmerized by Fox News, where the truth came out, and then the reporters got the story wrong.  I savored the tasty morsels offered up by MSNBC, where everything was a joke told in deadpan voice, and even the dry spectacle of CSPAN, where a few jokes would’ve been welcome.

The local news flashed back to the anchor’s desk.  A blue-suited, silver-haired robot was asking questions of a young female staffer from the mayor’s office.  Her Skyped face cut in and out, replaced momentarily by a black screen.

“…coffee grounds…,” she was saying.  “…in your garden.  Scatter … your house.”

“Will that kill them or drive them off?” the anchorman asked.

“…just a theory.  We don’t….”

“Lovely,” I muttered, looking over my shoulder at the Keurig on the kitchen counter.  There’d be no scattering of coffee grounds for us.  Technology had eliminated that suddenly useful waste, replacing it with plastic pods good for even less.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  I turned toward the window and saw an American toad staring back at me from the other side of the glass.  An outline of my own pale, squared-off head reflected also, superimposed above the toad’s.  The amphibian’s glossy beads of eyes became mine, forming a new creature that resembled the caricature of Edgar Allan Poe I’d seen on goofy tee shirts.

“Go away,” I said, not sure if I meant the words for me, the toad, or the hideous monster made of both.

The young woman had moved on to listing the pros and cons of spraying the roads with citric acid (it didn’t sound promising or a likely option) when my doorbell chimed.  The hollow four-note pattern—dum dee dee dum—startled me out of my chair.

Who the hell would come over at a time like this?  Would the act be considered stupid or brave?  Unnecessary, certainly, and unexpected.

I moved quickly toward the door, stubbing my little toe on the corner of the coffee table.

“Shit!” I cried.

“Was that the door?” Candy shouted from our bedroom.

“I got it,” I yelled back.  I shook my foot, trying to stop the pain, then reached for the knob.  I didn’t bother to look through the peephole.  I doubted there were Jehovah’s witnesses or political hucksters going door to door on a day like this.  Instead, I expected to see something like that scene in The Exorcist where the old priest first looks up at the house with a sense of foreboding.  It might have been that, too, if Max von Sydow were dressed like Bozo the Clown.  I inched the door back just a bit while I stared down to make sure no American toads slipped through the crack.  As such, the first thing I saw was a pair of brown high-top canvas shoes, followed by lime-green socks into which the legs of khaki pants were tucked.  I knew who it was before my eyes reached the plaid vest, an odd combination of colors that matched the American Toads all around us, constricting over a white dress shirt or the fat face adjoining half a neck.  The blond eyebrows and circular pattern of thinning blond hair filled out the portrait.  “Morris, are you out of your mind?”

“Hey, Jim,” he said.  “Just checking on everybody.”  His high voice cracked with mirth.  “Mind if I come in?  It’s frog-pocalypse out here, you know.”  He kicked a toad off the doorstep.

“Sure, sure,” I said, stepping back.  I opened up, urging Morris Vandevander through the gap.  I slammed the door as soon as he was clear.

Morris owned the monuments store over on Lee Street.  A widower with six absent adult daughters, Morris headed our neighborhood watch and felt it was his civic duty to mind everyone’s business.  He sent out mass e-mails with subject lines like Someone stole the spare change out of the Johnsons’ car last night or Two teens seen running up Slack Road at 4 a.m.  I once imagined him sitting by his living-room window, permanently propped in a chair like Norman Bates’s mother.  Sure, it was good to have someone on our side, keeping an eye out for criminals and such, but I thought Morris went too far.  Recently, he passed around a petition to have lights installed near the ruins of an old Civil War fort.  Morris said kids were up there drinking and screwing at all hours of the night, which was probably what kids had been doing since the Civil War ended.  I wanted no part of that petition.

I shook my head, erasing the bad thoughts.  “Would you like a cup of coffee, Morris?  Maybe a bourbon?”

“Appreciate it, but no.  I’m just out checking on folks.  You know, making sure you have supplies.”

“We’re good,” I said.  “Ask us again in a week … if this craziness lasts that long.”

Morris grimaced.  “No siree,” he said.  “I saw on the boob tube that the experts think our world’s calming down by the weekend.  The frog population’s already starting to dwindle.”

“Toads,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Never mind.”  I urged him to follow me into the living room, where the TV still buzzed.  The anchorman was interviewing a local pastor about the toads, Bible prophecies, spiritual preparedness, and the like.  I didn’t need to hear any more of that conversation, so I grabbed the remote and pushed OFF.

“I don’t mean to interrupt you, Jim.  Glad to see you’re okay.  How’s the missus?”

As soon as he asked the question, I heard Candy’s voice behind me.  “Morris?  Is that you?”  I turned and saw her coming down the hallway.  She’d changed into a blue satin blouse and a pair of loose-fitting jeans.  She wore a sandy-blond wig in a style that reminded me of early David Bowie.  The color had returned to her cheeks, and she was smiling.  She had a glaze to her eyes so slight that I doubt Morris noticed.  I wouldn’t have noticed either if I hadn’t witnessed the way her eyes looked earlier when that glaze wasn’t there.

“Candace, honey, how you feeling?”

“Never better,” she lied.  She went toward him and gave Morris a hug.  Her thin arms around his thick body resembled netting trying to hold a ham hock together.

“Ain’t you just the sweetest,” he said.  “Jim treating you all right?”

“Never better,” she repeated, and this time I could tell she meant it.

The hug was growing uncomfortable for Morris.  Candy held on too long, and I noticed that Morris didn’t hug her back.  He held his arms at his sides as if afraid to place a hand against her skin.  It was as if he worried how it might look.  He had a thing for her, I realized.  He didn’t want me to see his hunger, but gave it away by resisting.  We’d known Morris for about five years.  He’d been to our house a hundred times.  We fixed dinner for him and his wife Jennifer when she was still alive.  How long had he been lusting after Candy?

Sweet Jesus, I thought.  Maybe she wanted him, too.  He was her type: short, out of shape, and still handsome in that 90s-Jack-Nicholson sort of way.  It could be that they would’ve had an affair if not for the cancer.  Was that likely?  Was it a real thing or just in my imagination?  Did that mean I should love her cancer and sing its praises?

Again, I shook my head.  “How’s the tombstone business?” I asked, just to say something.

Morris seemed happy for the distraction.  As Candy backed away from him, he said, “Slow couple of weeks.”  He laughed as if hearing a joke in his head.  He tried to vocalize it.  “People don’t even want to die until the frogs are gone.  It’s like they’re afraid to leave too soon and miss the Rapture.”  His chortles croaked like a smoker’s cough.

“I like your socks,” Candy told him.

Morris blushed.  “Thanks.  My littlest darling bought them.”  His littlest darling, Llewellyn, was twenty-seven and living in Kentucky.

I went to the bar and poured myself a bourbon, skipping the ice and soda.  “Sure you don’t want one, Morris?”

He squinted as he considered it.  “No, thanks.  I better get on my way.  Still have other folks to check on, you know.”

“Of course.”

“Oh, don’t leave yet,” Candy mock-whined.

“Sorry, Candace, honey.  I really need to make tracks.”  He looked down and paused as if checking to be sure his pants remained neatly tucked into his socks.

I swallowed the burn of warm bourbon.  It went down so fast that I couldn’t taste the Early Times.

“I’m glad you two are all right.”

I stifled a laugh.  Except for my wife’s cancer, drug problem, and surprising interest in you, I thought.  “Except for the toads,” I said, setting down my glass and escorting Morris to the door.

“Yeah, except for them,” he finally said as if coming out of a trance.  “Well, take care.  I’ll see you when I see you.”  He opened the door and walked out carelessly.  I expected to hear the squish and squeal.

I stepped in to fill the gap, but hesitated.  Staring up at me from the doorstep was a fat American toad, its eyes bulging, skin gray-brown and lumpy.  For all I knew, it could’ve been the one from the windowsill earlier.  Improbable, sure, but nothing felt normal to me now.  I wanted to get back to selling sports cars, being on top of my game in the battle of wills it took to convince people they should buy luxury items they didn’t really need.  I enjoyed pushing them over the edge, guiding them, making their decisions for them.  At times like that, I felt whole.  I never worried about cancer, toads, or horny neighbors on the prowl.  I never worried which kinds of pills would fix my wife.

“Go on home,” I said to the toad.

Halfway up the road, Morris offered a backhanded wave.

 


Author Bio: Ace Boggess is author of three books of poetry, most recently Ultra Deep Field (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2017), and the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016). His recent fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, Lumina, New Plains Review, and The Evening Street Review. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

The author: Mike Robbins