UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2012
GREAT HORNY TOADS
The first one landed on the Fenton house. Eight thirty at night, Alan was in his living room watching television. His wife Lorraine, who hosted a garden social every June, was in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner. The kids were in their rooms, doing homework and screwing off online. And then they weren’t. Then they were under a frog the size of a filling station, just like that. No goodbyes, no farewell garden parties, nothing.
I was sent to talk to the media. There’s nothing in any book about being a small-town Mayor’s spokesperson that covers the contingency of a giant frog landing on and crushing a house, or even anything on giant frogs in general. But someone called one of the Dayton television stations and told them, and a reporter and crew were sent. I didn’t see what good a statement would do—a giant frog on the rubble of a house spoke for itself, I thought—but the Mayor insisted I go and meet the TV crew there anyway.
When I got there, coffee in hand, there was already a crowd. The TV crew was already there setting up shop across the street from the frog because everyone forgot about the frog’s tongue. Apparently the Fenton’s dog, which was outside when the frog landed, was running around the front yard yapping away and in about a heartbeat the frog’s tongue came out, wrapped around the dog, and sucked it in. So I went to the TV people, introduced myself—“Phil Davis, Spokesperson for the Mayor of Liberty”—and offered to make a statement. They weren’t going to say no.
“This is a tragedy,” I said. “The Fentons were kind and generous people, loved by everyone in the community. What they could have done to warrant this I do not know. Rest assured, however, that the Mayor’s Office is going to launch a full investigation and will work around the clock until this situation is resolved. Thank you very much. No further comment at this time.” It worked for the moment. The TV people did whatever it is TV people do and left me alone.
I walked over to the sheriff and we looked up at the frog. It was just sitting there, all quiet like. The area smelled like a pond. “So,” I said. “Where’d it come from?”
He chewed something for a second. “The sky.”
I sipped my coffee and thought of Exodus.
“We got four eyewitnesses say they saw it come down. Got their statements already. One second a house, next second a crash and a big damn frog where the house had been.”
The frog might have exhaled and it might not have. “Any ideas on getting the frog out of here without hurting anything else?”
He chewed something again for a second. “Might maybe just let it leave when it wants to.”
“It’s a thought,” I said. “Evacuate the street, give it all the space it wants.”
So the neighborhood was emptied. Got everybody out who could get out by nine thirty and the rest by ten. The town went quiet then for the night. By morning the frog was gone.
Overnight the second one hit. Nobody’s quite sure when exactly, other than it was after two in the morning. Jack Johnson, who owns a thousand acres and some out south of town, had some guys come in from Richmond and lay down some crop circles in one of his corn fields so he could see himself on the evening news. The crop circle guys left at two in the morning. By the time Old Man Johnson woke up at half past five the frog was already there, smack in the center of the formation, with no way it could’ve gotten there except from above. When the frog left that afternoon it knocked over some more corn stalks, so it wasn’t so much a crop circle as a crop Rorschach ink blot. Still, Old Man Johnson got his TV coverage, so he was happy. The Mayor said he’d fax over a statement to the news people, but I don’t know that he ever did.
No sooner had the second one hopped off for who-knows-where than the third one dropped, right smack on the playground at Hempstead Elementary. It was getting on time for the kids to leave for the day so everyone was inside, but the playscape that had gone in not two years earlier was destroyed. Kids scrambled from their desks to look out the windows when they heard the crash. Twenty seconds later they were greeted with a deafening croak from the frog, which is when the shouting and the running for cover started.
The news vans pulled up ten minutes later to the sight of the frog sitting atop a pile of aluminum and hard plastic that would no longer provide the school children an outlet for releasing their energy. City Hall is only two blocks away from the school so the police had the street barricaded fairly quickly, and it being a nice day I just walked over, coffee in hand like it was something I did all the time. The news people saw me coming and asked for a statement.
“This is a tragedy,” I said. “Just a tragedy. And rest assured that the Mayor and the City Council will be launching a full investigation into what has happened here today, both here and out at Old Man Johnson’s farm.”
“Mr. Davis, Mr. Davis,” one of them said. “Does the Mayor believe that a plague of biblical proportions may be about to befall the town?”
Well if they didn’t before, they will now you’ve brought it up, I thought. A couple of cameras went click, click, click in the few seconds it took me to form a suitable response. “The Mayor is, as I said, preparing to launch a full investigation into the circumstances of today, and that question will be a part of it. Now if you’ll excuse me.” I walked away from the cameras and microphones and joined the sheriff back behind the security tape.
He was chewing something, and regarding the frog when I approached. “Glad the press is enjoying this,” he said.
I nodded. “So?” I raised my pitch as I said it, hoping he’d get the idea.
“Still no clue. And now we got how many school kids saying it just fell from the sky.”
I sipped my coffee for something to do. “I wonder where they hop off to.”
The sheriff looked over at me with an odd look on his face. “Wrong question.”
I looked back at the frog. “Yeah, I suppose it is.”
From there it was two or three frogs a day. Some hit buildings, some hit crops. A few cars were crushed too, along with a semi trailer parked in one of those overnight truck lots outside of town. The driver was asleep in his cab when the frog hit and apparently a little bit after too. How he could sleep through what must have been a horrible racket I have no idea, but he did.
The town was on full alert after that. The Community Watch people wanted to institute a curfew but other people said, “How will that help? The frogs fall night and day,” and the idea was dropped. Children were escorted from point to point, even inside school, as if under military guard. Some people painted bulls-eyes on top of their houses, hoping to maybe get a few minutes of fame and an insurance payout. The only one lucky enough to have that work was Old Man Johnson who painted the target on an outhouse he didn’t want anymore. As it turned out, he was the only one to be hit twice by the frogs.
A month to the day after the first one hit, the last one did. It landed on a gas station which was having its tanks filled. Somehow the metal canopies scraped together enough for sparks to fly, all the gasoline fumes in the air caught fire, and everything went boom. Thankfully nobody was hurt except for the frog, who didn’t survive.
The TV crews turned up again to try and get some footage but they had to shoot around the frog, whose carcass was still in the flames. One leg was sticking straight up in the air like a flagpole, and the air for three blocks in every direction smelled of gasoline and charred amphibian.
I gave the TV people a statement anyway, on the sidewalk running past the gas station. “It is unfortunate that this has happened here today,” I said, gesturing with the coffee I’d stopped along the way to pick up. “A local business has suffered great damage and a frog has been incinerated. The mayor is pleased that no one was injured in today’s tragic, tragic accident, and vows to not rest until the deluge is over. Thank you very much. If you’ll excuse me.”
I joined the sheriff, who was leaning against an ambulance that turned up because someone thought it should. “Worst one yet,” he said, chewing something.
“Looks like. How’s the attendant?”
He gestured over to a young girl in a blue smock, shaking and being comforted by family and EMTs. “About that good.”
I sipped my coffee. “We can’t stop this, can we?”
He spit; a brown glob of something appeared on the pavement a few feet in front of us. “I should quit. Wife hates tasting it.”
The press had a field day. “Frog Legs, Anyone?” was the headline of the Richmond newspaper the next morning, right above a picture of the blaze complete with charbroiling frog. The paper got sued a bunch for printing such an offensive picture, and they went under. The late night comedians were having fun with the frogs before, but this incident dominated their monologues for three nights.
The good news was that over the same stretch of time, tourism jumped. For whatever reason, people thought Liberty was a good place to be for that month. Folks from wherever came in to see both the novelty of an outsized frog as well as all the damage that had been wrought. A few enterprising people started putting together tours of all the damaged buildings, and Old Man Johnson charged people to have a look at the crop destruction. One of the restaurants in town started serving frog legs, but nobody thought that was in good taste and a week later they stopped. Still, for four glorious weeks, hotel rooms in town were hard to come by, and the sidewalks of Liberty were filled with locals who feared another frog falling, and tourists who hoped for it.
And then it stopped. The frogs didn’t fall, the jokes weren’t made, tourists started staying away again. Folks in town slept a little easier, a little deeper into the night. It was still talked about in the bars, but over time the stories changed. Buildings were smashed that hadn’t been. People were crushed and miraculously survived to tell the tale. It became the stuff of fable.
Years later, when I retired after a lengthy career as a public defender, the town’s paper sent a journalist to my office for an interview. In turn we came to my time as Spokesperson for the Mayor, and the crisis of the frogs.
“You pulled up in your car to the frog that landed on the first house, the—” He checked his notes briefly. “—Fentons. What was the first thing that went through your mind?”
I smiled. “Great horny toads,” I said, trying to sound cartoonish.
The journalist chuckled. “It carried on for a month.”
“Do you ever ask yourself why? What the town did to earn having giant frogs dropped on it, I mean.”
I thought for a moment. “All the time,” I said, and sipped my coffee.Peter Barlow's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rosebud, Ranfurly Review (UK), The Other Herald, Prole (UK), and Spindrift. He received his MFA Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and serves as a reader for th school’s journal, The Literary Review.
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