It’s 4:15 in the afternoon, and you’re waking up in a tractor-trailer in Oklahoma. Sun and sweat and cicada chirps—there’s nothing but horizon for miles. You’ve got what you desperately hope is ketchup smeared all over your hands, and you’re surrounded by a score of sticky monsters. Whatever caper you found yourself in last night ended in the forceful seizure of hundreds of Rana temporaria, the common woodland frog. Memories begin to crawl themselves forward through the cracks of your splitting headache, memories you’d rather forget. Amidst the chorus of croaks, you can hear sirens in the distance, and although you’re not entirely sure of the details, you have a vague recollection of becoming the most wanted man in Tulsa. It’s time to lay low, wait for the heat to die down, and figure out what to do with the brigade’s-worth of slimy new friends (or enemies) you’ve just made.
Of course, your best bet is to leave the frogs behind. You don’t have anything against the little green guys, but you’ve got ground to cover. You need new clothes, food, and supplies. You have no idea where you’re headed—even where you are really—and keeping a small parade of hopping boys hidden is no paltry task. Unfortunately, you can’t seem to shake them. They predict your every attempt to run away, following just behind or cutting you off. The sirens are growing closer, so you sprint for the tree line, breaking through the field of shimmering wheat, the frogs leaping along behind you in a glorious wave.
The woods are dark and damp. You recognize this clearing. You used to go to parties in these woods during high school. Small, irresponsible keggers. A few too many stupid fights. Where did those days go? This place is too far from town to walk. You hear the police fly by. You’re in the clear for now, but you won’t last long in these woods and you know it. You were a terrible boy scout. You could never stick with anything as a kid, though how could you have been expected to, with all the moving around, all the different cities. You’ve already gotten yourself lost. You know you need to find a road but the more you wander, the less sense you have. Eventually, you give it up, just like everything else. You sit in the mud and foliage and try to remember, but there’s nothing there. The ghosts of memories. A silhouette in mist. A body in an alley, slumped. A gun? That’s all you can take before you drift into exhausted, defeated sleep.
Cold feet slap your cheek. Again. Again, and finally, you’re awake, a particularly large toad resting on your face. You knock him to the ground and stand yourself up, still tired and tense. What are you going to do? What did you do? You scrub your hands clean in a nearby stream, the dry blood releasing in spiraling tendrils. The headache has subsided at least, but you’re starving. How long has it been since you last ate? You take a stumbling step and hear a panicked croak. The frog beneath your foot is fine, but as you release him, you notice another frog, just a yard or so in front, hopping in place. In fact, there’s a whole line of the frogs, each a yard from the next, hopping in place, seemingly directing you deeper into the forest. You have no other options and you know it, so you follow the bouncing bodies. Each frog exits the line as you pass and follows behind you, loyal. You reach the end of their living trail and there, through an absence in the trees, is the road.
Your small green saviors seem to have no sense of what they’ve done for you. They simply lounge, the occasional ribbit or leap signaling signs of life. They’re all around you, and as you take to the road, they follow in a tight but wild procession, taking up only as much space as they must. A man in a beat-up truck drives by, headed to Tulsa. His name is Anthony and his chin is adorned with a scraggly mess of hairs which drag against his huge red flannel, at least a size too large for his already massive frame. He notices your tiny, green fan club, but makes no fuss. The frogs collectively jump into the truck bed. He hands you your own flannel, orange and purple. He says he had been planning to drop it at Goodwill anyway. He is lying and you know it, but you also know that you’d be a fool not to accept this kindness. He asks no questions, which is good, as you have no answers. You exit into a Tulsa strip mall parking lot the same level of stranger you entered Anthony’s truck, but wrapped up in orange and purple that drapes almost to your knees.
The frogs keep a relatively tight circle around your feet as you examine the strip mall. A local ice cream shop, closed on Sundays. A UPS store with one employee and no customers. An abandoned Hallmark store full of empty shelves. But on the far right, there’s a small Mexican restaurant. It’s mostly empty, maybe one small family inside. A few employees. You’re starving. You’ve walked miles, blisters are turning to bleeding. You bid the frogs to stay in a small patch of grass beneath a street light, and to your surprise and relief, they obey. You go inside, order a few tortillas, and pay with the pair of quarters you found in Anthony’s flannel, taking a seat in a booth in the corner. You eat from the small plastic warmer ravenously. What happened? What happened? You can’t bring it forth. You try but the memories just won’t come. You’re so tired. So hungry. You’re so deep inside yourself, you’re barely yourself at all. You don’t even notice the small TV, humming the local news, or the small boy tugging at his mother’s shirt to point out how similar you look to the man on the screen, or the mother, calming her kid, quietly calling the police. In fact, you don’t notice a thing until a frog’s body thuds against the window of the restaurant. Then another. Then another. And you look up to see two squad cars, pulling into the small parking lot.
The officers, one tall and the other squatty, exit their car, flinging the doors outward and kneeling with guns drawn as frogs continue to berate the windows of the restaurant. You stand, hands up, and walk towards the door. Maybe they’ll offer you some answers? You swing open the door and the noise from the megaphones berates you. They tell you to put your hands up even though they already are. They read you your rights from 50 yards away. It’s a shitshow of incompetence. The frogs begin to recongregate around you. They are vocal, croaking and groaning. It becomes hard to hear the officers, so you take a step forward. The guns click. They warn you once more. You don’t want any trouble. You’ve never wanted any trouble. You just want to know what’s going on. You just want to remember–to remember the things you’ve done. To know all you’ve done. You say this. You scream it above the armada of slimy green boys, all crying out with you. The officers tighten their grip. The squatty one accidentally lets off a shot, which shatters a Hallmark window. You can’t go to jail. You won’t go to jail. You won’t become your father. But there’s no way out. No distance left to run.
The frogs begin to hurl themselves at you, a few at a time. You try to brush them off at first, but they are relentless. Hundreds of frogs, flinging their small bodies at your weakened frame—you collapse. The police holster their guns and come to try to help. Your body is completely obscured by the swarming mass of grey-green bodies. The police claw at the frogs but the task is sisyphean. There’s nothing to be done. They back away, the frogs’ cries and croaks increasing in volume. The sound obscures all else for you, your body submerged in a cage of fleshed darkness. They are heavy, weighing your body down, pushing your cheek against the pavement. You’re afraid you’ll suffocate. You’re afraid. You’re afraid.
You rise, covered in frog-armor. The police start shooting, but a live frog takes every dead frog’s space. You take out the police, neutralize the threat. A brief silence. A brief horror. But more sirens, and all that’s left is to run.
Like a newborn foal, your first steps are trembling, timid. There are so many questions to ask, so many answers you fear that you’ll never receive, but more than that, there’s so little time before another platoon of police cars skid around the corner. Each step feels, somehow, both impossibly light and impossibly heavy as you lumber your golem-esque form towards the nearest alley, desperate not just for escape, but for somewhere to escape to. You try to recognize the area, recall its quirks and hiding spots as each of the individual dead frogs, riddled with bullet holes, sloughs off of your waddle-jogging body, molted in favor of fresher friends. Your skin crawls underneath the writhing mass of amphibian flesh that has enveloped you, and though you are desperate to find some sort of explanation for your froggy-fresh incarnation, you are struck suddenly with an almost mournful familiarity. These were the streets you played in, once, but your current situation has rendered this environment totally alien to you. Perhaps that’s just what becoming older is: slowly losing what you once thought defined you, until all you know is the suffocating isolation of a loss of self. Perhaps things just look strange because you are a freakish monster-man covered in frogs.
As you emerge from the alley into the buckshot-patterned mess of suburbia beyond, you begin to notice something strange. Your steps are no longer as laborious as they were just moments ago. The metaphorical weight of the half-remembered scraps of what you have done still lies firmly seated atop your mind, but as you look down at your exoskeleton of slimey boys, you notice some strange behavior that distracts you from the sins (or, quite possibly, frogs) you feel crawling down your back. “Strange” is an extremely relative word to you at this point, but even so, what you see gives you pause. Your hippity-hoppity little sons are beginning to grab hold of each others’ hands and feet. They lock on to one another through a coarse interlacing of limbs and, with each passing second, redistribute their weight across your form. Your slimy, slippery, armor is growing more efficient, and for that you are thankful. As more frogs connect themselves to the matrix of mottled flesh that now encompasses your being, yet more rana temporaria fling their figures at your ever-growing form, increasing the complexity of whatever it is they – no, what you – are becoming exponentially with every passing second.
Whatever abomination you are growing into, the transition won’t be stopped. The pace of your growth doubles, then doubles again. What is left of your human body is quickly becoming lost amongst the tide of toads crashing into you. You feel your senses slowly expanding and your thoughts deadening. Your past is reduced to ash. Every question, regret, anxiety, and fear immolated alongside every soft and kind moment you’ve ever known. You are losing everything. It is all joy and all sorrow. It is ecstasy and hell. You slump to a seat in the alley beside a dumpster, atop a pile of damp trash which barely missed the bin. You are tired. Tired of fighting. Of running. They sense it. No longer are these frogs your armor. You are the frogs. The frogs are you. As the remaining embers of your human consciousness dwindle out, you cry to the heavens with one last, desperate howl. But upon opening your mouth, all you hear is “ribbit”.
Image Credits: Jacob Bilich