He is lying on the splintered, faded–gray wood of the dock, the fingers of one hand dangling in the slough and glitter frogs in his hair. His breath catches and he cups the back of Christian’s head. An airplane is flying far, far overhead. It sounds like the purring exhale of the frogs. Aaron wonders where it’s going.
When he comes, his abdominal muscles tense, pulling his shoulders off the planking. The frogs in his hair go tumbling nubbly ass over nose, their creaking noises gone silent. The orgasm is an adrenaline rush that outlines his body in nervous fire before fading, leaving a ringing in his ears.
Aaron stares up at the broadening remains of the jet contrail, sucking air like he’s been running rather than getting head. He thinks, like every time, that he should have liked it more. He wonders if there’s something wrong with his dick. Christian crawls across the dock and flops beside him, one arm draped carelessly over the baseball logo on Aaron’s T–shirt.
One of the frogs has come back. It puts a clammy little hand on Aaron’s cheek before letting out a croak. The others are scattered across the dock and they answer in identical voices.
“God, they’re so creepy,” Christian says. He picks up the frog. It kicks out its back legs and inflates its neck. It doesn’t ribbit; it freezes as though holding its breath. The two boys can see the delicate iridescent shading on the frog’s belly, the flecks of “glitter”—sensors of some kind, probably alien nanotech. They can see circuitry, visible under thin layers of skin.
“I like them,” Aaron says, reaching out to touch the frog’s nose with a fingertip. It opens its mouth slightly.
Christian holds the frog closer to his face, eyes narrowed in mock anger. “If you’re going to watch, the least you could do is pay us, frogface.”
“We still don’t know if they’re individuals, or like a hive mind or something,” Aaron offers.
Christian drops the frog into the slough and it hits the muddy water with a disconsolate plunk. “Holy shit, I hope not.”
“Is there really a difference between one super smart alien frog brain or a thousand of them, if they’re always watching?”
“Is that like, if a tree falls in the forest?”
Aaron doesn’t answer. The contrail overhead is starting to dissipate. The clouds around it have turned pink at the edges.
Christian rolls onto his side, propping his head up on one elbow. “Well, I’ve got something to tell you,” he says.
Christian brushes hair out of Aaron’s face, and then tucks his own long, dark brown hair behind his left ear. It falls forward over his shoulder and across his neck. There’s a mole near where his clavicle peeks out from the collar of his yellow–and–green shirt. Aaron watches his lips as he says, “I got into Dartmouth.”
He says something else, but Aaron doesn’t hear it. And then Christian is looking at him expectantly. And Aaron knows that what he’s supposed to say is, “Congratulations,” or “Oh wow,” or “I knew you’d get in.”
But what comes out is, “I thought we were going to U of O!”
Christian puts his head down on his arm and sighs. “You’re going to U of O. I told you I was applying to better schools.”
Aaron only vaguely remembers those conversations, whispered to him in the back of the band room while waiting for the conductor to drill the flute section on a difficult part of the song. He does remember hiding in Christian’s attic room, with stolen bottles of hard lemonade, talking about how they could be roommates. Was that all bullshit then?
“I didn’t think you’d actually apply to them,” Aaron says. “We had plans.”
Aaron thinks he can sense Christian rolling his eyes. “You had plans.”
“But you can’t just… I mean, what about…”
Christian picks his head up to look at Aaron, and then all he says is, “Well, I guess either we’ll spend a lot of time on Skype or you’ll get over it.”
“Fine.” Aaron says, and he gets up. Once he’s standing, his head is above the shadow of the slough’s bank, and he has to shade his eyes to look down at Christian. But he doesn’t. His huffy attempt to stomp off is made less dramatic and more comical by his need to tuck his underwhelmed penis back into his pants and zip his fly. So he’s already less angry and more embarrassed, cheeks burning, as he hunts around the grass for his sneakers. But it would be worse to back down and face Christian now, so he musters what anger he can and storms off.
“Whatever,” Christian shouts after him, as he struggles through the tall grass at the edge of the field, glitter frogs hopping up and away from his stomping feet, their bulging eyes watching him. “Text me when you feel like talking about this like an adult!”
Aaron rides home, stuffs his bike in the garage, heads for his room. There are frogs all up and down the stairs. Even though he likes the stupid aliens, he wants to kick them out of spite. He wonders if he drop–kicked one down the hall if it’d bounce off the back wall or splat horribly. The frogs hop away from him, as if they can tell what he’s thinking, and he feels awful. “Sorry,” he whispers, a roiling sickness in his guts. He can’t get the image of a splatted glitter frog dripping off the wall out of his head.
There are about a hundred of them in his bedroom when he gets the door open. Unlike the glitter frogs in the hall, these ones don’t scatter when they see him. He wonders how they get through closed doors and what they’ve been doing in here alone all day.
He swipes his tablet on and tries to distract himself with Facebook, which mostly works. Well, until Christian’s status changes to single.
Aaron stares at the notification. The thick feeling in his throat is the same one he gets right before he cries. “I didn’t mean that,” he says to nobody in particular, though of course the frogs are listening.
One of the glitter frogs jumps up onto Aaron’s shoulder. Its back is such a dark and stormy blue, speckled with metallic flecks, that it looks like the night sky. Aaron picks it up and holds it in his hands, feeling the cold fluttering of its heart and breath. It smells odd, like a spice barely remembered from childhood. He wonders if the frogs are alive, or if they’re robots, or if it’s just a grand, mass hallucination. “Well, you were there, some of you.” Aaron says, “Tell me why he did it.”
The frog doesn’t say anything, even after Aaron lifts its face to the screen, showing it his Twitter feed. The feed is full of tweets by Christian that are definitely about him, though they don’t mention him by name. The glitter frogs never say anything.
Aaron puts the frog down on his desk. He lowers his face so their eyes are on the same level. Another frog, this one striped red and black, jumps onto his computer tower without displacing the rejection letters piled on top. From underneath, looking up, Aaron can see the Harvard crest. That response? No. Princeton: no. Yale: no, not even. Don’t even think about it. And Dartmouth? Ha.
The night sky frog ribbits. It sounds disgruntled. Aaron sighs; the puff of his breath makes the frog blink. Here is the pain of his future collapsing on itself and the realization that no, he’s not that great. He’s not great at all. He’s completely, devastatingly average. Seventeen years of denial couldn’t change that.
“I wish for once I could be the one leaving, not the one being left behind,” he says.
The frog stares at him; its wet eyes reflect the cloud–studded sky out the window.
Tumblr gif set, eight images: Rescue Dog “Saves” Frog. Taken from a YouTube video of the same name, filmed on a smartphone in portrait mode.
One: A mottled green and purple glitter frog swimming in someone’s backyard pool.
Two: A golden retriever paces left on the pool deck. Barking.
Three: Glitter frog is still swimming, minding its own business.
Four: Retriever leaps into the pool, and the splash repeats incessantly in the browser window until you tap over to the next gif.
Five: Retriever paddling toward the pool stairs, glitter frog held in its soft jaws.
Six: Retriever puts down frog and backs two steps away. The frog blinks and its throat expands with a mighty, pissed off croak.
Seven: Retriever lying next to the frog on the pool deck, wagging its wet tail.
Eight: Retriever licks frog. Frog retracts its eyes to escape the overeager tongue.
The last time he ever sees Aaron is when he watches the other boy walk away from their fight. He’ll come to think of it as the stupidest fight that he’s ever had. He’ll spend years wondering if Aaron would have still run away if they hadn’t broken up with each other on Facebook.
Aaron’s parents come to Christian’s house two days later, looking as though they’ve been crying, or not sleeping, or both.
“Have you seen him?” “Did he say anything about where he was going?” “If you hear anything, will you tell us?” “Does he have any other accounts online that we don’t know about?” “Did he say he was meeting anyone you don’t know?”
And Christian has no answers for them, sitting in the dining room with his own parents nearby, their faces also drawn and worried, as though running away might be contagious.
He’s still no help later, when it’s the cops come to ask almost the exact same questions, or when the school counselor asks him how he feels about it, or when mutual friends, voices low and quavering with awe, ask what exactly he said to Aaron?
“Nothing. I told him I got into Dartmouth, that’s all. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I don’t know where he went, he didn’t say anything about leaving. I don’t know why he left. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Christian isn’t sure what he expects, but he knows that people can’t vanish without a trace, especially if they don’t have that much money and extra especially if they still expect to graduate from high school.
Everyone is so nice to him.
Except that the frogs are starting to avoid him, a scattering cloud of various colors every time he steps into a room. They’re still watching him, the way they watch everyone, but from a distance now. From under the bed, not from his desk. From the shower curtain rod, not from beside the sink. From behind the Xbox, not from the arm of the couch. When he can catch them out, hiding behind a cup of pencils or a pillow or the venetian blinds, Christian thinks they look strangely content. Like they know something.
There’s a SoundCloud user who records the glitter frog songs almost nightly and puts them up raw. This is unusual, as most users remix their recordings into songs. On one track, a flurry of comments at the four minute mark:
Whoa, is it just me or does this sound like a code?
Dont b fukin stupid
No, it kinda does.
Y WOULD ALIENS USE MORSE CODE!?
its just u
He’s looking for somewhere to sleep that doesn’t smell like pee. Before he left home, he wouldn’t have thought it’d be this hard, but he learned better pretty quickly. Timing is also important. You don’t want to wait until it’s too late, because then all the really good places to sleep are taken. You don’t want to go too early, though, because if you’re too early, there’s a much higher chance that a janitor or someone will notice and kick you out.
So far, every place that he’s checked smells like pee. Usually he can smell it before he even gets under the awning. It’s the spots that don’t get rained on that smell the worst. They get pissed on and then forgotten, and the piss bakes into the concrete when the weather gets hotter, drier.
It’s not hot or dry right now. The air has that heavy, waiting feel. It’s cold enough to make people complain about May being too late in the year for chill, northern winds. Occasionally a single raindrop falls.
The frogs don’t seem to mind. When the rain falls to the stained concrete, the frogs rush to it, a wave of glittering color that bunches and scatters. Tristan used to like the frogs, when he was younger. He used to fall asleep listening to them outside his window, in the house, sitting on the edge of his pillow, their voices not–quite harmonizing. That was before stepfather number three dragged the family into the kind of turmoil Tristan thought was restricted to TV movies until it happened to him. But after Tristan ran away, nobody paid much attention to him, including, and perhaps especially, the frogs.
Past the abandoned theater, there’s an awning for a stage door. There’s a half–wall that blocks view of the door from the alley. Great. Three walls and a crappy roof. Tristan pulls his sleeping bag and backpack down the stairs, lays out the sleeping bag. He rips open a half–melted granola bar for dinner as the sky opens up and rain pounds the awning overhead. There’s a leak near the door, but Tristan finds an old coffee can, a few long–dead cigarette butts in the bottom of it, and uses that to catch the water.
While he eats, some of the glitter frogs, slick with rain, seem to grow tired of the weather. They come down the stairs in butt–bumping hops, surrounding him. One climbs up onto his knee.
He pulls out his old cell phone, the SIM card deactivated long ago. He’s still got some juice, but there’s no WIFI near enough, so he saves the power. He thinks about offering the frog on his knee some of the granola bar, but he isn’t sure if the frogs eat.
He remembers a news article that went the social media rounds a few months ago:
Question: Alien “Glitter” Frogs: CO2–Eating Terraforming Technology?
Answer: Nobody knows, but they do seem to exhale oxygen, despite looking like animals. However, it’s not enough oxygen to reliably light them on fire.
Tristan is putting the phone away when another boy comes around the corner of the half–wall, drenched from the rainstorm, his hair plastered to his face and his T–shirt stuck to his torso.
The boy stops, staring, his hand on the half–wall. His fingers leave little damp marks on the painted concrete. He picks at the edges, dislodging crumbling bits of stone. There are glitter frogs all over him, of all sizes. Large ones sit on his shoulders, cling to the wet fabric of his clothing. His hair seems to move of its own accord, but it’s just small frogs climbing between the strands.
Tristan has never seen anyone with that many frogs on them before.
“It’s raining,” the boy says.
“Yeah,” Tristan answers. He wonders if the boy is high. If he is, that’s fine unless it’s meth or something and he’s going to flip out. Tristan wonders what the frogs would do if the boy flipped out. Probably leave.
Tristan shifts his sleeping bag, crumpling it up so that there’s bare concrete for the boy to stand or sit on. He doesn’t want his bed to get wet. “Come in,” he says. “What’s your name?”
The boy steps out of the rain, dripping on the dusty concrete. Tracks of rainwater run down his face and arms. “Aaron,” he says. He crouches, his back against the wall, watching Tristan. The frogs also follow him in, too many.
Tristan tries to keep them off the sleeping bag, but eventually gives up. Most of them don’t climb on him, but the entire space is quickly covered in a shifting mass of the glitter frogs, all colors and sizes hopping, shifting, trying to stay close to Aaron. This makes Tristan nervous.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?”
Aaron blinks rapidly, wipes the rainwater off his face. “No,” he says, and then he laughs. “I didn’t plan this very well, I guess.” He pulls off his T–shirt, scattering the frogs. He shakes it out gently to make sure there are no frogs inside, and then he leans over the wall to wring it out into the rain.
He must have run away recently, Tristan thinks. Or been kicked out in the past few days. But it’s strange for him to be so calm about it. Maybe this isn’t the first time. “I can help you find somewhere to go tomorrow,” he says. “If you need it.”
Aaron drapes the shirt over the wall, and even though he got a lot of the water out, it trickles down to pool on the floor. “I don’t,” he says. “I’m not planning on sticking around very long. I’ve decided to go away with the frogs.”
He looks slightly surprised when he says it. Like he’s just now put the thought into words. But he doesn’t take it back.
They are glitter frogs, and they are aliens, but nobody has ever gone away with them. There are so many frogs that Tristan has to be careful if he shifts his legs, otherwise he’ll squish them.
“Running away to join the alien circus,” Tristan says.
A YouTube video that persisted for six months before someone reported it for terms of service violations:
The camera is fixed on the ground, bouncing with every step. Glitter frogs dive out of the way. The person behind the camera knows better than to tilt the camera back and show their face.
There’s a clearing in the tall grass, glistening where it’s been wetted down with a hose. Just in case. There’s a flat piece of particle board on the ground, dented, scratched, splattered with paint of various colors. The camera gets especially haphazard as something is put on the wet piece of particle board. It’s one of the glitter frogs, but it doesn’t look quite right. Something is wrong with its legs.
And there are fire crackers next to it.
You can guess the rest. You don’t need to see it. Don’t go looking. The video was taken down. There are no torrents.
Nickie’s high school doesn’t do dissections any more. It hasn’t for years. Her parents once asked if she was going to be dissecting worms in biology class and then looked dismayed when she said, “Uh, no. Duh.”
Duh. You can’t cut up unassuming animals for fun. And there’s no way that the school would want to court more controversy after firing their biology teacher for being too aggressive in his teaching of evolutionary theory.
Nickie saw him in the grocery store afterward. He looked drunk, or like he’d been drunk, or maybe he wanted to be drunk. She waved at him, after shifting the box of Coke to her left arm. He stared through her like she wasn’t even there, picking up glitter frogs from where they sat among the kumquats. In retrospect, Nickie didn’t think that she’d want to be reminded she’d been fired, either.
Even though the equipment never gets used anymore, the school never throws anything out. After class, Nickie steals one dissecting tray, two scalpels (in case the first one isn’t sharp enough), ten pins, and a pair of rusty surgical scissors. She has her own scissors, but the idea of using them on dead animal guts and then putting them back in her desk drawer is gross.
At home, the frogs are everywhere, so they’re not hard to catch. Nickie holds the frog while others hop around her feet in the living room. Her parents have tried to keep the frogs out, but they always get back in.
Whenever Nickie types a question into a search engine that starts with “How,” the autofill gives her variations on “How do I keep frogs out of my house?” She clicked a link once, and the suggestions horrified her. But that was then. Now, she’s watched an old instructional video about Earth frog dissections, taken careful notes. All of the Google results for dissections of the glitter frogs come up broken. Her other searches weren’t much better.
What are the frogs?
What are they doing here?
What are they made of?
Nickie carries the frog into the kitchen and puts it down on the counter. There are so many others—almost as though they know what she’s about to do and are coming to watch. She hopes not. Psychic alien frogs are even worse than regular alien frogs.
She drops the frog into a canning jar. It puts its brilliant green hands up against the side of the glass, its purple–blue throat pulsing more rapidly than the frogs on the counter. Nickie drops in three cotton balls covered in acetone and tightens the lid.
She watches the glitter frog suffocate.
Nickie takes the frog and supplies into the garage and sets up on the concrete floor. There are more frogs in the garage than she expected, hundreds of them sitting on every surface. Nickie has to nudge them out of the way with her sneakers.
The frog doesn’t move when she takes it out of the jar. She hopes it’s completely dead. To make sure, she waits a few minutes, the frog resting motionless in the center of the dissecting tray. She cautiously pokes it in the back with her set of tweezers. Then she flips it over onto its back like she saw in the video. She uses the pins to stick it to the pad underneath, trying not to gag at how hard it is to push pins through the stringy flesh of its legs.
She makes the cuts with the stolen scalpel, wishing it was sharper, trying not to break anything that could be interesting. The skin of the glitter frog parts easily, though it rips in places and she has trouble cutting through the sections that appear to be circuits.
The dissection video hasn’t prepared her for the blood. It wells out of every cut; it oozes from the pinholes. This is nothing like the nice, neat dissection she had planned. It’s worse. Messier. There is so much blood. She pulls back the layer of skin from the torso, pins it to the side, and looks down at the smooth, peeled wall of the glitter frog’s abdominal cavity. There’s a thin circuit embedded in the muscle. Nickie takes her tweezers and carefully, gently, extracts it from the bloody mess. The thin metal wire keeps coming until she pulls it free. There’s a square bit at the end that looks more like an RF chip than anything else. She holds it up to the light, frowning because it doesn’t look all that alien.
Next, Nickie cuts through the muscle itself even though her scalpel slides around on the wet tissue. She can see the glitter frog’s organs, and she realizes that they look nothing like the ones she saw on the video. These organs are shaped differently and of course, they’re not dyed.
The other glitter frogs around her are staring; their eyes are huge in the dim light of the garage. The frogs crowd so close that she can feel them pressing up against her legs, against her arms. There’s an army of them, a nation of them, and she thinks she can feel them climbing up her back.
The cold, wet sensation of a frog on the back of her neck jars her into motion. Nickie stands suddenly, accidentally kicking the dissection tray so that it clatters across the concrete floor. The frogs fall from her, and she hears soft thuds as they hit the ground.
She bags the dead glitter frog in a Ziploc sandwich bag to carry it out to the woods behind her house—a stand of tragic cedars and vine maples between her house and the neighbors. She hides the body under a rotting log and hopes something out here will eat it.
She hoses off the dissection tray in the backyard, her golden retriever snuffling around the sullen red puddle at her feet, the bloody water flecked with tufts of shed hair and tiny bits of frog guts. When the dog laps up the bloodied water, she turns the hose on him, and he dances away. He stares at her from a few feet away, head cocked to the side, pink tongue dripping.
Nickie washes the RF chip in the sink, dries it on a paper towel, and brings it with her to school the next morning.
She finds her chem lab partner before class. Christian has been doing the same thing every morning since his boyfriend—ex–boyfriend—ran away from home. He’s sitting out on the picnic table that nobody ever uses, picking at flecks of lichen and peeling paint, moping. Nickie had a crush on him, once, in like elementary school. She’d held out hope he was bi until sophomore year, when they had the most awkward conversation ever.
Nickie brushes some frogs off the table and sits next to him. “Hey,” she says.
He frowns at her through that missing–someone–plus–senioritis haze. “We don’t have anything due today, do we?”
“No. Remember how I was telling you that I couldn’t find anything online about what the glitter frogs are made of?” She pulls off her backpack and swings it around onto her lap. It’s warm for being so early. There are other students out, though most of them are walking to the lunchroom or heading toward class.
She pulls out the plastic baggie, hands it to him. “This was under its skin.”
Christian frowns at the piece of metal, frowns at her, holds it up to the light. He slides the plastic baggie around with his fingers, as though the clear plastic is obstructing his view. Nickie’s about to tell him that he can take it out of the bag if he wants when he asks, “Are you sure?”
“What do you mean, ‘am I sure?’” Nickie takes the RF chip back, stuffs it in her backpack. “I took it out of the frog myself.”
Christian looks at the glitter frogs surrounding them on the grass. They are watching. He pitches his voice low, almost a whisper. “You cut one of them up?”
Nickie zips her bag with more force than she intended. “Yes. I did. I thought that it was weird that they’re apparently such a big fucking secret. But look at that. It doesn’t look very alien, does it?”
Christian closes his eyes and exhales, but before she can ask him what he thinks about it, he says, “I didn’t see anything. You didn’t show me anything, I don’t know anything.”
When he opens his eyes, all she can see is fear. “I don’t want to know,” he says, as a glitter frog lands between them.
Of course, if someone were systematically scrubbing the Internet of all references to the glitter frogs, then how do you explain the Tumblr gif sets? The audio recordings? The videos that don’t involve illegal firecrackers and animal cruelty?
Surely someone would have taken down the space frog conspiracy theory site designed by a person with only a very cursory understanding of HTML?
The site has a star field background with red, white, and blue text. The only thing less systematic than the wildly varying font size is the capitalization, which seems to occur at random.
tHe FRogS ArE NOT alIeNS, ThEY are GOveRnmENT sPiES!
DO NoT leT TheM FOOL yOU!
i HaVE THE uLTiMatE PrOoF thAt THE sHIp iN oRbIT iS FAkE
tHeRE ARE NO aLiENs
tHAt iS whAt THEY WanT YOu tO BeLiEVE
cIA and FbI haVE bEEN tRYinG tO ShUT Me uP FoR YEARS
NsA iS UsInG FROGs tO ImPLAnt TheIR InSTRUctiOnS In YoUR ChilDRenS MInDS
We MuST RISE UP BeFoRE iT iS TOo LaTE!!!
And so on…
This site has been up for at least a year now. If these sites were under surveillance, don’t you think it’d be down already?
She is really surprised how easy it is to get drinks at this show. She’s got three years to go before she can drink legally, but the show is 21+ and the bartender is assuming the door guys did their job. The door guys checked out her boobs with about ten times more attention than they did her fake ID.
Her friends, Trisha and Moira, are drinking whatever they want, ordering drinks that sound funny and then snickering behind their hands when the bartender, harried and over–busy with the number of drink orders during the shitty opener’s set, just nods. It seems that he’s completely lost the ability to find “sex on the beach” funny. Karen doesn’t blame him.
She orders her fourth rum and coke and wonders if she should be feeling drunk yet.
Trisha has ordered a drink that is a horrifying shade of blue, and she’s trying to get Moira to bet on whether or not it’s going to make her tongue change colors. Karen is still watching them when one of the glitter frogs on the counter walks over with its halting, I–should–be–jumping frog walk. She thinks that it might be planning to climb up the side of her glass —yuck. The last thing she wants is a frog in her drink.
The frog stops a few inches short, staring at her with its incomprehensible gaze. Then it crawls to the other side of the bar, where it stares at a fallen slice of lime in a puddle of tepid water.
“I guess there’s so much heavy breathing going on that there’s enough CO2 for you all,” Karen says, flicking a piece of ice at the frog. She misses, and the ice skitters away over the bar. The alien turns its long–suffering eyes on her again. She sips her rum and coke and stares back until she starts to feel distinctly uncomfortable. She leans left, and the frog’s eyes follow her. Then she leeeaaans left, and the frog is still staring. She leans so far that she loses balance and falls against Trisha.
Trisha laughs and pushes her back upright on her barstool. “Hoo boy, Karen’s smashed already.”
“No, I’m not,” Karen says, hoping that the bartender didn’t see her fall. Luckily, he’s busy, slinging limp white napkins and pouring cheap beer.
It’s easier to hear now, and it takes a moment for Karen to step outside of her drink–tunneled attention and realize that the opener has stopped playing. In the silence between sets, the bar gets so busy that she can feel the press of people against her back as they crowd forward to order drinks over her head. A guy stumbles against her, grabbing her boob for balance, and then he slides away down the bar before she can respond. Trisha and Moira either didn’t see or don’t care. Karen bites her lip, hunches her shoulders, and wishes she’d stayed home. She doesn’t even like the headliner much, it’s Moira’s favorite. She wishes she’d responded faster and punched the guy in the kidney, or something.
The glitter frog is gone. Karen wonders if they can walk on the floor in this crush of people, and then she imagines the floor coated with the remains of glitter frogs like stomped grapes.
The benefit of going to a show in another city is that it means the chances of running into someone you know, or worse, someone who knows your parents, are much slimmer. Still, Karen thinks she recognizes one of the young men on the other side of the bar. She squints in the dim light and can make out his features.
It’s the missing boy from her high school, she realizes. He has glitter frogs on both his shoulders and he’s buying a drink for the boy next to him. People thought he was dead. He’s been gone for months.
She’s about to go over to him and tell him that he should call his parents and at least tell them that he’s alive when Trisha says, “Oh my god, can we dance already?”
Karen realizes that she hadn’t noticed the headliner beginning to play.
Moira throws back the rest of her drink, and then she grabs Trisha by the arm, pulling her off the stool. “Come on,” she says, “I love this song!”
Karen chugs the rum and coke, which is a mistake because she realizes that she isn’t quite sure how many drinks she’s had so far.
She follows her friends out into the mass of people, shoving her way past sweaty arms and glowsticks, past people dancing so close that she wants to scream, “Get a room!” but doesn’t because she figures they wouldn’t hear her anyway. Moira is extremely good at working the crowd, and it doesn’t take long before they’re only a few people from the front. And then they are in the crush of humanity, everything smelling hot and damp–slick with sweat.
Karen feels like she should be repulsed by the warm sweat of strangers, but instead she lifts her arms over her head, lets the stage lights strobe between her fingers and the thrumming bass fill her head.
For the first two songs, she hopes that the night lasts forever, that the set will go on and on until she dies of old age here in this dark room. There are no frogs on the floor, but there are some on the stage. One is even clinging to the microphone stand.
But then the first few songs turn into a few more, and a few more, and suddenly Karen realizes four things:
a) She isn’t sure where her friends even are anymore.
b) She would rather the show be over sooner rather than later because she’s not sure she can keep up with this pace much longer.
c) Most of the guys on the floor seem to have the same balance problems as that one man did by the bar.
d) She’s going to need to puke soon.
Her feeling of malaise turns into an even stronger need to puke as the slower song she’d been swaying to segues into something faster, hotter, and with more thumping in it. And then she’s dodging elbows on her way to the edge of the crowd. The world consists of nothing anymore but the sour smell of other humans, the bruising force of their bodies against hers every single time she misjudges the tempo of their terrible fucking dancing.
Karen thinks she’s going to start screaming, crying, or maybe just pass out, but then she’s miraculously outside the crowd, stumbling toward the can. There’s a man near the door checking her out, and she barely manages to flip him off before stumbling through the bathroom door.
The women’s restroom is full of glitter frogs. They’re everywhere—on the floor, clinging to the stalls, on the sinks, in the sinks, by the sinks. On the paper towel dispenser.
She stumbles into one of the stalls—of course none of them have doors —and hovers over the painted–black toilet with the cracked seat, trying to puke so that the bathroom will stop spinning. She tries to stick her finger down her throat as if that might help. It should have, since her finger tasted grosser than anything, but it didn’t.
After a few minutes of fighting to give in to the nausea, she gives up, sits on the toilet with her pants still up, breathing heavily and trying not to cry. The sickness encompasses everything. She is in a building with several hundred people, here with friends, and she’s alone.
The glitter frogs are watching her.
Air, she thinks, and even though the room is still spinning, she climbs to her feet and stumbles out of the bathroom, following the wall to the front door, and then she’s out on the street.
It’s raining, cold fat drops are landing on her hair, soaking through her shirt. The door guys watch her like the glitter frogs as she stumbles around the corner and leans back against the jagged bricks of the wall. The street keeps tilting clockwise.
“Are you okay?”
Karen blinks. Standing at the corner is the boy she recognized earlier. He is covered in frogs. He doesn’t seem to mind the rain.
“Are you Aaron?” she asks. Missing Aaron.
He smiles. “Kind of.”
She squeezes her eyes shut to make the spinning stop. This makes her more dizzy, so she opens them again.
He asks, “Do you need help getting back inside?”
“Not yet.” Karen can hear the music. She can feel it against her back, the vibrations working their way through the wall.
“I’ll wait with you,” he says. He doesn’t add, “Because you’re way too drunk.”
Minutes pass. Karen asks, “Why’d you run away?”
Aaron’s voice is so soft that she almost can’t hear him over the music and the sound of rain. “The frogs,” he says. “I want to go away with them. Me and Tristan are going away with them.”
Karen laughs. “Oh my god,” she says. “Are you serious?”
He lifts a glitter frog off his left shoulder. This one is dark blue, and it glistens in the streetlight. She can’t tell if that’s from the metallic flecks in its skin, or from rainwater. Aaron holds it out to her. “Haven’t you ever felt like you didn’t belong here?”
Karen takes the glitter frog, holds it in the palm of her hand.
Aaron says, “Neither do they.”
For Sale Listing: GLITTER FROG CLOTHING—COTTON—SHIRTS, PANTS, SUITS, SUN DRESSES—$20–$75
All glitter frog clothing hand sewn by ME! Are there alien frogs in your life that you’re starting to get attached to? Are you having trouble telling them apart? Price varies depending on the amount of fabric needed! When you order, send a photo of the frog next to a ruler or something so I can figure out the measurements.
She’s sitting on a bench outside the bus station in Baker City, feeling the dust and the heat seep through her skin. Regrets are crawling around her veins like one hit too many of a cheap upper. It’s already late afternoon, but the next bus won’t be leaving for hours. She watches the cars pass on the interstate to the east. The rolling foothills to the west bake golden in the hundred and ten degree air.
It’s probably too hot for the glitter frogs and she’s glad. She doesn’t think she could handle their disappointment on top of her own.
“Should’ve just stayed in the car,” she tells herself, but when she thinks about Aaron’s wide eyes and mumbling, of wandering the western states without a single fucking clue where they’re going, feeling less and less connected to the world… she doesn’t really regret leaving them.
There’s no shame in getting scared and buying a ticket back to Centralia, she tells herself. Her mom cried on the phone when she said she was coming home. It’s been more than a year.
A car pulls into the parking lot, kicking up a plume of orange dust that obscures the semis behind it. It’s red, an old, kinda boxy car, probably one from the ’90s or something. The windows are up, so it’s got air conditioning.
The man who gets out of the car is tall, and he’s got long brown hair that he hasn’t bothered to tie back. He’s wearing tight jeans and a green Dartmouth T–shirt. His sneakers look new, even from half–way across the lot. He leans on the driver’s side door, looking at the building, at her. He’s frowning like he’s looking for someone. He checks his iPhone before slipping it into the pocket of his jeans.
The only sounds are the thud of the car door shutting, the interstate beside them, and the scuff of his feet on the faded asphalt. Avery puts a hand on her ratty old backpack, but she doesn’t move it off the bench. He comes so close that she can see her wind–burnt, sun–scorched face reflected in his shades. Strands of his hair drift in the breeze like spider silk.
“Hey,” he says. “You wouldn’t have happened to see a car or a van or something here recently? Maybe an older one. There’s probably be a couple people in it about our age.”
“You got a cigarette?” Avery asks. There’s this sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, because she already knows who he’s asking about. And she doesn’t know if she should play stupid or what.
He glances over his shoulder at the car and then shakes his head. “I don’t have any tobacco, sorry.”
“Weed’s fine,” she says, but she already knows he’s not going to give her any.
He puts his sunglasses on his forehead and digs his phone back out of his pocket. He swipes past some screens and then holds it out to her. Avery has a brief impulse to grab the phone and run, but there’s really nowhere to go from here and it’s too fucking hot for that kind of shit.
“I’m looking for this guy,” he says. “I was supposed to meet him here, but my flight home from school was late and I couldn’t get here any earlier.”
Of course it’s a picture of Aaron. It’s Aaron and the boy standing in front of her. They’re sitting on the edge of a fountain, holding hands, heads bent, foreheads touching.
Avery feels something rising inside. Fear, anger, self–loathing. She’d be down that road already, in a car full of frogs, going to meet the aliens, finally, if she hadn’t been so fucking afraid. Because what if they turn us inside out, and what if they get tired of us and shove us out the airlock, and what if it means leaving everyone we know behind, coming back in four hundred years. She wants to scream at this guy to fuck off and leave her alone, and she almost does.
But there’s such a sad look on his face. She pulls her backpack off the bench to the ground next to her feet. “You just missed them,” she says.
“You know him? Oh, god, how long ago did they leave?”
Avery shrugs, “Like an hour ago.”
“Do you have his number? I mean, to whatever phone he’s got now? I tried to call him back but the number didn’t work. Maybe if I can call him…”
Avery hates him a little bit for his assumption that he can show up at the last minute in all his Ivy League glory and be welcomed. “He’s not going to come back, you know,” she says. She flips the phone to his address book and puts the newest number in under Aaron’s name. There are four old numbers there, all defunct.
“Thanks,” he says, and he dials immediately, pacing in the dust, in and out of the shade. When he says, “Fuck,” Avery knows that the phone has gone to voice mail. If this surprises him, it makes Avery think that he must not have known Aaron all that well.
“Aaron,” he says, and then there’s a pause before he continues. “It’s Christian. I made it to Baker City and there’s a guy here who says I just missed you, but I meant to be here, really. I want to see you. Your parents have been crazy for the past year and a half, absolutely batshit. I’ll be waiting here. Call me back.”
Then he sends a text, and another, and finally slumps on the bench beside her.
“He’s not coming back,” she says. “And I’m not a dude.”
“Oh, oh, I’m so—”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says, waving his apology away like a cloud of gnats.
They sit together on that bench while the sun crosses the sky and slips behind the hills, barely talking. Christian’s got questions, of course. He wants to know where they’ve been, where they were going, how Aaron’s been doing. Avery shuts him down. She’s marking time until she can get on the bus and head back to the real world. It kills her that he doesn’t seem to have figured out that they’ve both missed their chance. Some people you can’t explain this shit to. They’ve got to figure it out on their own.
When the bus comes, she flips her hair out of her face and says good–bye to Christian, who’s checking his phone again. She slides into a stained fabric bus seat that smells a lot like spilled coffee and a little like piss. He’s sitting alone when the bus drives off, waiting in the night for a phone call that’s never going to come.
The car is full of four teenagers and too many glitter frogs, sitting on laps, on feet, on the floor, in the back window. The car rattles down a dirt road somewhere in Utah, a ranch exit fifty or eighty or a hundred miles from civilization.
They’re driving with no lights, leaving the freeway far behind. It’s a full moon so they can see the road anyway, their eyes adjusted to night. Tristan is driving. Aaron is drumming his hands on the dashboard, making up for the radio that he turned off once I–84 turned south, way back in Idaho.
In the back seat, J is staring out the window at nothing. Karen’s sitting on the driver’s side, head pressed against the back of Tristan’s seat. She keeps thinking that she should have stayed in Baker City with Avery, but she doesn’t say a single word.
The car hits a bump so hard that their asses all leave the seats. Aaron stops drumming. “Here,” he says. “STOP HERE.”
Tristan stomps the brakes, and there’s an exhalation of breath from slamming into the chest straps of their seatbelts, and then Tristan kills the motor. Silence.
Aaron climbs out of the car first, the dust of the road under his boots soft and dry. The air has gone cold, but he imagines he can still feel the warmth of the rocks underfoot. The others, human and glitter frog, follow him out of the car.
“Now what?” Tristan asks, the words strange in a place so quiet. Behind them is the buzzing rattle of someone’s phone left in the car.
Aaron skids down the embankment, dislodging dirt and gravel in a rush, and he starts walking away from the road. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen so many stars.
At first he thinks that the glitter frogs are catching up with him as he walks, but then he realizes that these are new frogs. More frogs. He can’t see where they’re coming from, but there are more, and more, until the ground is a shifting mass of glittering sparks.
He stops, waits for the others to catch up with him, waits for Tristan to be close so he can grip the other boy’s hand tight in his. They are barely breathing for the anticipation. Karen takes Aaron’s other hand, and J takes Tristan’s. Together, they wonder what the ship will be like, the stars, the swiftly receding earth.
All around them, spread out for miles as dense as carpet, the glitter frogs begin to sing.
© 2015 Keffy R. M. Kehrli