Three times he’d seen HR about the broken showers. Three times. Jared stood on the other side of Bernard Schmeckle’s desk because there was only one chair and Schmeckle was sitting in it. He’d gotten the hang of bending his knees slightly to keep them from locking, to keep the blood flowing. Something he’d learned shore fishing as a kid. He knew how to flex his toes inside his shoes one by one to work the muscles in his calves and upper thighs.
“The showers again?” Schmeckle asked. He traced a bronzed finger along the edge of his date book. “They’re getting fixed on Tuesday.”
Jared imagined hurtling over the desk and grabbing Schmeckle by his cheap, purple tie, putting Schmeckle’s eye to the picture of Cindy and Phineas he kept in his wallet and asking him to think of them with cancer or brain tumors like he often did in the middle of the night when Diane’s snoring kept him up.
“You said that last month,” Jared said.
“Got held up,” Schmeckle said.
“We go home smelling like coolant. What if we’re all, everyone here, poisoning our families? It’d be your fault, you know that?”
Schmeckle sighed and sat up straighter. “Look, have you been over to the plastics division? They’ve got the older suits and they’re fine. No one’s had a sick day in…”
He clicked his mouse a couple times. “No one in plastics has called in sick in two months. I can take you over there. Let you see.”
“I used to work in plastics,” Jared said.
“Oh. Well then you know.”
On the drive home from the chemical plant Jared passed palm trees and missed his North Woods pines. He drove over canals—sad scratches in the earth compared to the glacial lakes he trolled for walleye. Everything he caught in the neighborhood waterways was covered in a milky slime. But this suburban swamp of a state was supposed to be good for Diane’s hip. Diane’s injury needed warm weather, the doctors said, and warm weather meant Florida.
Diane met him at the door.
“Cake’s in the oven,” she said. Strands of red hair hung loose from her bun.
“Great,” he said. Jared stood a good three feet from his wife.
“The shower’s aren’t fixed?” she asked.
“I’ll get the kids in the living room.”
Diane limped off to find Phineas and Cindy.
Upstairs, Jared lined the hamper with a Hefty bag. He wore gloves while he took off his clothes, and took the gloves off only after he was otherwise naked. Then he stepped into the shower and tried not to think of the chemicals he was washing off, tried not to think of the hot water opening his pores, methacrylic acid and phthalamide working deeper into his skin, down through the epidermis. It was time to get out.
His children, over the last several months, had started calling him “wet man.” They thought he was never dry anymore because they only touched his damp skin, his damp hair, his softened fingernails. Jared found this very sad. He practiced more thorough drying. When Diane’s hairdryer wasn’t strong enough, he bought his own and hid it under old sheets in the towel closet.
They ate macaroni and cheese, Cindy’s favorite. Jared had a little, but mostly ate salad. He felt carrot shreds scrub his esophagus clean. He ate Cindy’s share since she was the birthday girl and didn’t have to eat any. Phineas blew bubbles in his milk until Diane brought the cake out.
“I think it’s the best one I’ve made,” Diane whispered to Jared as he lit the candles.
“It’s because I’m seven,” Cindy whispered back.
Eight candles glowed. Cindy tucked a few stray hairs behind her ear, bent over the candles the way her mother did, and blew them out.
“What did you wish for?” Phineas asked.
“Presents,” Cindy said.
“You’re not supposed to say, honey.” Diane smiled.
But there were presents.
“Here,” Phineas said. He handed his older sister a teddy bear, Happy Birthday, Sister! scrawled across the plush heart. She set it aside for Jared’s gift. He’d wrapped the box in old funnies. Cindy stood over the package and tore it open.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a terrarium,” Jared said. “Like a fish tank, but you put frogs in it, or lizards.”
It was a starter kit. He’d loved terrariums as a kid.
“Russell Boyd brought a frog to class yesterday for show and tell,” Cindy said. “It was gross. He made it dance.”
She pushed the box aside for Diane’s shiny, yellow present. They’d agreed on the princess costume, but then he saw the terrarium and bought it without thinking.
Cindy put the cheap plastic tiara on her head and Diane Velcro-ed her into the dress. Phineas picked up the teddy bear he’d given his sister and turned it over in his hands, somewhat sadly, Jared thought. He pulled Phineas to him. His son didn’t resist, instead laid his head on Jared’s shoulder and watched Cindy twirl around the living room.
Cindy stopped spinning. Her face drew into itself, greened.
Jared hated the sound of throwing up. He felt his own dinner climbing up out of his stomach. He closed his eyes and breathed.
“Gross,” Phineas said. His voice vibrated against Jared’s neck. Jared thought he saw cake in Cindy’s vomit, and bits of macaroni. He wondered if she’d snuck into his work clothes hamper, lifted the lid, peeked in. Reached out a finger. Just one.
But they kept an old barbell on top she couldn’t lift.
“Oh, honey,” Diane muttered. She came back from the kitchen with a handful of dishtowels and threw them over the vomit.
“Those are the good dishtowels,” Jared said.
Cindy began to cry and Diane toed the towels to cover a few stray macaroni noodles before brushing back her daughter’s hair, tracing her thumbs around the edges of Cindy’s eyes. Jared thought of his wife’s skin, soft because of the rough washcloth she used every night. Her face, always red when she crawled under the covers, in the morning was new.
Putting Phineas to bed was easy. It always was. He fell asleep halfway through The Velveteen Rabbit. Phineas never slept with him and Diane. It was always Cindy crawling in between them, over them, on top of them. Those mornings Jared woke with a stiff neck and Diane with dead arm.
He went downstairs. The sour smell of vomit hit him hard. He gagged and pulled his shirt over his nose. Diane picked up the towels.
“Here.” Jared reached for the box of baking soda.
Diane held onto it. “I’ll do it,” she said.
A fine, white dust fell over the carpet. Like sifted flour or playground sand. Diane set the box on the end table. She put a hand on her forehead and balanced on one leg like a flamingo, a hip stretch she did when her hip flexor started to bother her, which seemed to be more and more often lately. She used to dance around the house, all arched back and long limbs, before she popped her hip.
“I thought we agreed on the costume. She wanted the costume,” Diane said.
Jared shrugged. “I thought she should have options,” he said. “Frogs and dresses.”
“Frogs and dresses? You were a one-gift guy, remember?”
“I got a raise. The whole coolants staff did.”
Diane looked hurt. “I’m not worried about money.”
“Sorry.” Jared looked at the terrarium box. A pixilated chameleon lazed on a heating rock. “Want to set it up?”
Diane shook her head. “Cindy’s waiting for a story.” She kissed him on the cheek and walked upstairs, jumping the creaky step near the top. She disappeared around the corner.
Jared stepped over the baking soda and opened the box. A ten-gallon tank and a small bag of gravel. Some starter kit. He removed the tank from its box and plastic, and set it on the coffee table. Through it, he could see the kitchen. The glass blurred things so that the refrigerator was a smudge in the corner. Jared knelt and stuck his head in the tank and listened to his breathing echo. The tank smelled like acrylate.
During lunch break the next day, Jared went straight to the men’s locker room and cranked the shower knob to the right. The pipes creaked and popped, but no water. Of course. Why would Schmeckle actually call the damn plumbers?
Jared leaned against his locker. He could leave. He knew this. He knew it would be easy to hang up his safety suit and leave it hooked to the wall like an empty fish skin. He could walk through the locker room without cleaning number 301 out. He could stride past Marve at the security desk, tip his first three fingers hello-goodbye as he always did and never come back.
But he couldn’t really do that. He knew it, Diane knew it, and some day even Cindy and Phineas would know it. Do what you love, he would tell them. Do what you love and you’ll find some way to make money doing it. He would say this to them some day, maybe when they entered middle school, those square-peg-to-round-hole years, or maybe when they began high school. He’d heard that high schools made students pick a major now, that at 14 they were supposed to know where they wanted to end up at 23. (Hell, at 14 his dream job was running a walleye charter boat on Lake Superior.)
At some point he would say to them, Do what you love, and they would know that he was a hypocrite. They would find out that he’d given up trying for his charter service because he would tell them. To warn them. But he knew they would judge him harshly for this because they wouldn’t understand that he’d once been like them.
His coffee, the next morning, was burned and it burned his tongue. His toast tasted metallic. He saw Cindy and Phineas off to school and kissed Diane extra long before she left. She wore a different shade of lipstick that tasted chemically the same. Then, Jared got in his car and drove in the direction of the plant. He imagined driving a terrarium, water sloshing around his feet, a nice heating rock beneath him. He was driving to the plant, driving past the ABC Liquors and the palm trees and the water main repairs on Hyacinth. He was doing this and then he was driving to the pet shop and parking and standing in front of rows and rows of heating rocks. He picked one: Exo Terra Heating Rock. $30. The gravel several steps to the left claimed to need less cleaning than the stuff that came with Cindy’s terrarium. He picked up plastic plants and put them back.
It was a particular tree frog that stuck out to him. Its light green bordered on brown and sometimes he lost sight of it against the tree bark propped in the display. The frog looked soft, like good leather. Pinewoods Treefrog, the sign said. Jared had read somewhere that frogs were the best sort of indicator species because they absorbed things through their skin, that native frog populations were declining—no, plummeting—worldwide.
“It’s not going to sprout wings if you keep staring at it.” A woman in a wheelchair stared up at Jared. Her nametag read Bea. “You have to take it home for that sort of thing,” Bea added. She took it out of the display.
“Go on, touch it,” she said.
Jared hesitated. He reached out.
“Wait,” Bea said. She brought the frog closer to her chest. “Your hands are clean, right? You could kill him if they’re not. I might get fired.”
“Yeah,” Jared said, but he followed her eyes to a vat of hand sanitizer, squirted some in his palm and rubbed. He ran a finger down the frog’s smooth back. Bea placed it in a plastic container with holes punched in the lid and traded it to him for $14.99.
It was dark by the time Jared came in through the laundry room. He hid the bag behind a stack of old newspapers and put the frog on a shelf behind the unopened pickles. Diane didn’t even try to kiss him when he walked into the kitchen. He wondered if maybe she’d become too used to not touching him. He went upstairs. He undressed, checked that his paunch, the slight sag in his belly, wasn’t any more or any less. Through the shower glass he saw Diane remove the hefty bag from the hamper and put a new one in. She’d bring the clothes to a laundromat in the next couple of days and read Dance Magazine while the cycle ran its course. He hoped she wouldn’t ask about work. Lying to her would triple the guilt he felt about skipping half a day of work. Partway through drying, he heard Diane shriek and nearly tripped over Phineas’s racecar set on his way downstairs.
“What?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
Diane pointed. A small roach crawled along the kitchen ceiling.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said.
Diane looked as relieved as he felt. He’d been sure she found the frog. She had a thing about outside creatures being inside. Diane left the kitchen, calling for Cindy and Phineas to wash their hands for dinner, or no dessert.
It took Jared three swats with an old Jade Garden take-out menu before he got the bug. He swept it carefully onto the paper and brought it into the laundry room. The frog stared at him from inside the Tupperware.
“Bon appétit,” he said and slid the roach inside. The frog croaked once then fell silent.
Diane slept like the dead because she used a sound machine. Something about looped artificial crickets helped her. The noise kept Jared awake, so they had a deal: she would go to sleep before him and when he came to bed, he’d turn it off. For this reason, he knew she’d think nothing of him staying downstairs after dinner and story time.
He didn’t turn the lights on in the laundry room, instead found his way back to the newspapers and pickles in the dark. The frog blinked at him and croaked. Jared laid layers of dirt and gravel and Spanish moss in Cindy’s terrarium. He added water and the heating rock and a small slab of bark. The frog seemed at home in it all. At least, it didn’t move much even when he touched it. He took this as a good sign.
The second frog came from a drainage ditch. Jared looked it up in an old field guide. Florida Cricket Frog, it said. It was tan and had two dark stripes on its rear. That was the one Diane found first. He hadn’t put the frog in the terrarium yet, so when she found it she must have been looking through the hurricane section of the pantry. Surprise, surprise, Jared thought when he heard her shriek. Lucy, he imagined her saying, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do. She didn’t joke like that anymore. Not since Phineas was born. She came in holding the jar in front of her like she held his dirty laundry.
“It’s for the terrarium,” Jared told her. He took the jar and set it on the counter next to the salad.
“Does that look like food to you?” she asked.
Jared picked the jar up. The frog sat at an angle so he could see its small toes against the glass.
“I thought you threw the terrarium out,” Diane said.
Jared shook his head. “No. It’s in the laundry room under the folding table. Behind all those old newspapers.”
Diane turned on her heel and walked back into the laundry room. She returned a moment later. “There’s another one in there,” she said.
“A tree frog,” said Jared.
“Boil the pasta,” she said. Then she started matchsticking carrots so Cindy would eat them.
Jared put the frog back on the counter and watched the water hesitate to boil. Phineas came down and took the frog to the table. He turned the jar in his hands, put his fingertip to the frog’s foot. Jared studied his son’s face distorted through the curved glass and marveled at the way his features spread and the colors all ran into each other.
“Cool frog, Dad,” said Phineas. “What’s his name?”
“Why don’t you take it upstairs and you and Cindy can name it?” Diane said.
Phineas slid off his stool and sighed an old-soul sigh that always made Jared’s breath catch at his chest, as if the air his son pushed away came from Jared’s own lungs. As if it was old air.
“Fine. But I don’t want carrots, okay?” And then he was gone and the frog was gone with him and Jared was left with Diane. She flexed her hip and he bent his knees just a little.
He watched her shoulder blades poke at the fabric of her shirt in time with the sharp snap of blade on cutting board. She paused and Jared imagined she felt his eyes tracing her spine vertebrae by vertebrae, pushing at them, helping her to stand straighter, the way he used help her stretch when she still danced. They’d sit on the floor, feet to feet, and he’d pull her hands toward their toes, stretching her hamstrings then opening her hips.
“Jared?” Diane said.
“Is your hip bothering you?” he asked.
“I asked if your hip was bothering you.”
“No, it’s fine. The water’s boiling.”
Phineas brought the third one home with him from school. Jared walked in through the laundry room. He paused at the terrarium. Diane had consented to giving it a shelf of its own, up high and off to the side. It couldn’t be behind her, she said, because then she felt their little eyes watching her. But it couldn’t be in front of her, either, because then she’d have to look at them.
He reached in a hand and found the tree frog, picked it off the slab of bark it clung to. Its smooth belly was cool against his skin. Was it bigger now? He put it back. Only a little at a time. A little at a time and then he’d see if things changed, if his touch somehow hurt them.
Diane and Phineas met him at the edge of the rug outside the laundry room.
“I told him he could keep it, but it’s the last one, Jared, okay?” Diane said. “That tree frog’s getting big enough.”
“Maybe it’s just growing.”
She brushed her bangs out of her eyes.
“Yeah. I don’t know. Probably. It’s a little fatter or something. Just no more frogs, okay?”
Her fingernails were shorter, Jared noticed.
“Sure,” he said.
Phineas bounced from foot to foot, grinning, a purple smudge of something smeared over his top lip. Cindy peered over the back of the couch, holding a Barbie doll by its hair. It swung naked from her hand. He remembered teaching them about the edge of the rug. How they couldn’t come past it until he’d showered. Until he was clean.
“Mrs. Abernathe says it’s a greenhouse frog,” Phineas said. “She said to leave it alone, but Jason Thomas Henry helped me catch it.”
Jared was constantly amazed by his children’s’ propensity for remembering names.
“Let me clean up and then we’ll take care of him, okay?”
He went upstairs and into the bathroom. He placed his hands on his shirt then held them up to the light. They looked like normal hands. Not too large or too small, a few freckles but nothing troubling. They glowed faintly orange against the light, a see-through skin-glow.
“Dad!” Phineas pounded at the door. “Are you done yet? He doesn’t want to be in the jar anymore!”
“Five minutes, buddy. Wait for me downstairs, okay?”
On the other side of the door Phineas heaved a sigh. “Fine. But don’t take as long as you usually do.”
Jared didn’t hear him leave, but he felt it all the same.
Phineas was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs.
“Let’s put it in with the others,” Jared said. He reached for the small pickle jar, but Phineas pulled it close to his chest.
“No. I want to do it,” he said. “I found him.”
Jared nodded. “Okay. Okay, that’s fine. “
The terrarium’s heat lamp glowed in the far corner of the laundry room. Jared set two milk crates in front of its shelf. Phineas’s nose barely came above the shelf itself, so Jared added a phone book.
“Cool,” Phineas whispered.
The tree frog clung to the glass. Blotches marred its smooth, white belly. Jared reached in a hand and touched the frog. Its eyes blinked closed for a moment and the frog shifted. Pressed up against the glass, the blotches came together to form a smiley face, clear as ink. Jared withdrew his hand.
“Is it sick?” Phineas asked. “Can I touch it?”
“No,” Jared said. He took a breath, looked away toward a pile of cleaning rags ready for the wash. When he looked back, the face was gone.
“Let’s put the new guy in, huh?” He reached for the jar.
“No!” Phineas scrambled for the jar, knocking over a can of WD40 in the process. It hit the concrete sharply, metallically, and Jared waited for the hiss that meant a leak.
Jared let out a breath. The frog was probably fine, not contaminated. Phineas found it at school. Nowhere near the chemical plant. Jared himself hadn’t touched it. He could use it as a constant. Compare the others to it.
“Go ahead, Phin. Let’s get him in, okay?”
Phineas pulled the frog out. Scarlet eyes stood out against bronze skin. It kicked its legs, almost slipping Phineas’s hold.
Jared reached for it and Phineas pulled back. “No,” he said. He stood on tiptoe and plopped the frog in with the other two. It hopped once then settled into a moss bed.
“Don’t touch him, okay?” Phineas said.
His eyes were sharp, focused, the way they were before he turned sullen.
“Okay,” Jared said. He held his hands up. “Okay.”
“Swear,” Phineas said.
Jared held out his pinky.
“No, real swear,” Phineas said. Jared wondered where his son had learned suspicion. It was unnerving.
“Okay, Phin, I real swear.”
Phineas nodded and made Jared leave the laundry room before him.
At work, to distract himself from breathing in nylon resin, Jared thought about Cindy and how much she took after her mother. In his experience the older child often looked more like the father, but Cindy had Diane’s bone structure and every one of her expressions. She pursed her lips the same way Diane did when Jared kept her waiting for the shower or the microwave. She smiled the way Diane did when he used to bring her band-aids after a performance instead of flowers, and she danced the same way, too—spinning out into larger and larger circles.
Phineas, though. Phineas didn’t look much like either of them. Or maybe he looked so much like both of them that they couldn’t see one or the other. He had a hint of Diane’s jaw line. Sometimes, when he looked close, Jared thought he saw a bit of his own ears on his son—the way his earlobes curved to the side of his head. Attached earlobes, they were called.
All of this to remind himself why he stayed at the chemical plant, and also why he shouldn’t.
“Jared. Hey. Earth to J-Man.”
Jared looked up from the resin. Jarrod grinned at him out of his safety suit.
“Hey. So we’re going to grab a beer after work. You should come.”
Jared shook his head. “ I don’t think so. But thanks.”
“Aw, come on, J-Man. What’s keeping you from a couple of brewskies with the boys, huh? Is it the old lady? She on your case about… what was it about last time? Roaches or something?”
“Yeah,” Jared said. It was easier to lie. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad now. She’s worried there might be an infestation or something. She’s crazy sometimes.”
Whenever he talked like this, talked like Diane was some other person, he felt like some other person, too, which made it easier to work with Jarrod. Working with someone with the same name made him feel like a duplicate, the odd offspring of a production line.
“That’s too bad, man. Too damn bad.” Jarrod shook his head. The suit’s fabric crinkled around the neck. Jarrod’s face twisted into a solo-cup grin.
“You should take some nitrocellulose. Sneak it out from the lacquer vats, fix your infestation problem.”
Jarrod moved a little closer. “You know,” he said. “Bshhhhh!” He spread his hands in an explosion. Jarrod probably thought the gesture was actually sign language for explosion. Probably it was.
“Yeah,” Jared said. “Maybe just a little for in the walls.”
He turned back to the resin, which would soon be stockings or car parts or rollerblades.
Jared found the Southern leopard frog at the swampy edge of the retention pond behind the factory. He went out there during lunch on nice days, days that allowed him to pretend he was back home in the North Woods. They’d been here six years—Phineas had been born here—and Florida still didn’t feel like home.
The leopard frog blinked out of the water at him. Jared wondered if it had extra legs or an exaggerated tadpole body beneath the surface. He hesitated then slid his hand into the water, reminding himself to wash that hand extra in the shower. The frog kicked once then lay still, breathing in his hand. Jared counted the legs twice: four both times. He put the frog in his lunch bag. It settled itself in the far corner and didn’t move.
He came in through the laundry room, placed his lunch bag on top of the washer. Behind the door he could hear Cindy singing, “I’m a little teapot…” and Phineas yelling at her to stop. The door sagged in its frame a little, and the groan from the other side meant Diane had her hands full. He leaned against the door and listened to her breathe, wondered if she could feel his weight against her own.
“Chicken fingers,” he heard her say over Cindy’s singing. “We’re having chicken fingers. Now do you want peas or corn, guys?”
Then the microwave whirred farther away and Jared wandered back to his bag. The frog was a dark spot against the plastic lining. He lifted it out, relishing its skin against his skin. He knew his hands could do no worse to this one than the water, so he let his fingers linger longer before placing it in with the others.
Jared searched the tank. The tree frog definitely seemed bigger. He lifted it out. It felt only slightly heavier. Maybe. He checked its belly. No strange marks. He didn’t touch the greenhouse frog. There was an extra one, a northern spring peeper, and he thought that Phineas must have brought that one home, too. Or maybe Cindy. Five frogs total.
Jared rustled under the stack of old newspapers and found the box he’d been keeping roaches in. It was tightly sealed and took some effort to open. If Diane found out he was keeping roaches she’d probably kill him, or worse, divorce him. He opened a corner and poured a few into the terrarium. They hung onto the box edge with thin legs before toppling into their last moments.
“Daddy,” Cindy said at dinner. “Phinny was playing with your frogs.”
“They’re not his,” Phineas said. “Two of them are mine.” He turned to Jared. “Right, Dad? Two of them are mine because I brought them home?”
Jared nodded. “Right, Phin. Two of them are yours. Just make sure not to touch the other ones.” The tree frog was bigger, he decided.
“Why can’t I touch the other ones?” Phineas’s fork sprouted from his fist.
Jared dipped a chicken finger in ketchup. “Because they aren’t yours.”
Phineas pinched his lips together and sat more firmly in his chair.
“Jared,” Diane said.
“Come on. He’s not going to eat.”
She turned to Phineas. “Here, honey.” She put another roll on his plate and he glared at her.
“I don’t want a roll,” he huffed. “I want to hold the green frog.”
“Phineas,” Jared said. “No. You can’t.”
“Yes, I can,” he said.
Cindy threw her roll at Phineas. “Stop it, Phineas. You’re being a brat.”
“Cindy,” Jared warned. “Apologize.”
“No. He’s being a brat. Right, Mom?”
Diane rubbed the bridge of her nose.
“Right?” Cindy asked.
Phineas stood on his chair. “I can too hold the green frog,” he said.
“Phineas, sit down,” Diane said.
“Mom!” Cindy shouted. “Right?”
“Cindy, please. Eat your corn,” Diane said.
Cindy pushed her chair back and ran to the laundry room. “I’m going to get the green frog. You can’t have it.”
“No!” Phineas shouted. He jumped off his chair. “Cindy!”
Jared dropped his chicken finger and stood. His stomach felt small and his fingers swollen and prickly.
Diane gave Jared her Flat Eyes. Jared hated the Flat Eyes. Last time they meant, Don’t argue with me anymore, we’re moving to Florida.
“Diane,” Jared said. He held his hands out in front of him. He wanted to say, “I’m sorry about the kids. I’m sorry about the frogs,” but he wasn’t, not really.
“I’ll just clear this up,” Diane said. She started stacking plates and Jared gestured to help, but she shook her head. “You get Cindy and Phineas,” she said.
Jared bolted for the laundry room fearing the worst. The door snapped against the wall, startling both children. Cindy held the tree frog, both her hands wrapped around its middle.
“It’s big,” she declared.
Phineas pulled at one of its legs and the frog squirmed in Cindy’s grip.
“Give it, Cindy,” Phineas said.
Cindy pulled back. “Let go, Phineas.”
Jared felt his stomach nibble its edges. “Cindy, give me the frog.”
“No. It’s my birthday present.” She clutched the frog to her chest. “And Sarah Ritter says that if you kiss a frog it turns into a prince.”
She bent her lips to the frog’s head and Jared ran at her, intending to knock it out of her hands. Her eyes grew wide.
“Cindy. Drop it,” he said.
She dropped it. The frog landed wetly and gave a fleshy croak.
“Don’t touch it, Phineas,” Jared said. He knelt in front of Cindy, examined her lips. They looked thin and pink. Were they pinker than normal? Were her lips just chapped?
Cindy took a small step back and part of Jared hated himself. Would protecting his children always mean scaring them, too?
“I didn’t kiss it, Daddy,” Cindy said. “I didn’t kiss the frog. I promise.”
Jared deflated. He hadn’t realized his shoulders were almost at his ears.
“Okay, honey. It’s okay. Let’s just go wash up.”
“I’ll meet you in the bathroom. Phineas go with her,” Jared said.
“But I didn’t touch it,” he said.
“You were pulling its leg,” Jared said. “Go.”
They left and Jared crouched over the frog. It hadn’t moved much and he wondered if maybe it was injured. Or dead. Jared picked it up. The tree frog was bigger than the bullfrog he’d kept as a kid. It was abnormal, but still alive.
An hour later, Diane stood in front of their bed with her arms crossed, a towel wrapped tightly around her torso. Her hair hung damp across her shoulders.
“What is that doing in here?” She nodded toward the terrarium, which now sat on their dresser.
“I don’t want Phin and Cindy getting into it anymore,” he said.
“They’re just frogs,” she said.
“They’re not careful enough,” he said.
“Why don’t you just get rid of it then? I don’t want it. Look how big the tree frog’s getting. Is that even normal?”
Jared lay back on the bed and made constellations out of the ceiling popcorn.
“You picked the bed frame,” he said.
“You picked the bed frame. And you picked the dresser. And that creepy little flower girl picture. I can’t stand that picture. Let me have this one, okay?”
Diane stood at the edge of the bed and stared down at him. Jared could smell the Ocean Breeze Suave she used.
“None of those things require feeding, Jared,” she said.
He sat up and leaned forward, resting his head against her stomach. Her muscles shifted to absorb the weight. Years of washing had worn the towel thin and Jared felt the curve of her stomach against his cheek.
“Does that one look like it’s glowing a little?”
Diane turned. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She walked toward the bathroom. “Put it back in the laundry room or something.”
Jared walked to the terrarium and crouched until the greenhouse frog was at eye-level. It glowed faintly, hardly noticeable.
“They might help you sleep better at night, hon. You know, with the croaking? It’d be like home. You slept better back home.”
The faucet turned off in the bathroom.
“A lot of things were better back home.”
Jared stared harder at the greenhouse frog. And was the tree frog fatter than the last time he’d looked? Diane appeared next to him. She must have read panic on his face.
“It’s really that important to you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s that important to me.”
She stood in fourth position as if about to dance away from him.
“Fine, we’ll try it, but if they keep me up they’re gone. Deal?”
“Deal,” Jared said.
With the frogs croaking in the bedroom at night, Diane stopped using her sound machine. She closed her eyes and felt her way to bed, still unable to bring herself to look at the terrarium. “Something’s wrong with that green one. It shouldn’t take up a quarter of the tank, Jared,” she’d murmur before sleep. Or, “Can you turn down the tank light? I can see it through my eyelids.” But he couldn’t and Diane knew it. She slept closer to him. The mornings were more pleasant. They rose early and drank coffee together. For every hour Jared lay awake listening to the frogs croak (he thought he heard one speak), Diane seemed to sleep for three.
Jared always came in through the laundry room now. When he brought the Little Grass Frog home, he passed through the laundry room quickly, pausing only to check that the roach box was still sealed, and continued up the stairs. Phineas and Cindy hovered at the edge of the rug.
“What’s that, Dad?” Phineas asked, pointing at the jar in Jared’s hand. “Is that a new one?”
Diane, at the kitchen table, didn’t even look up from her book. “It better not be.”
Jared smiled and put a finger to his lips and nodded at Phineas, then trekked up the stairs. Phineas knew not to follow until Jared was showered, but he still felt bad leaving his son at the foot of the stairs.
Cindy was in the bedroom. She’d dragged the computer chair from the office to the dresser and stood staring down into the terrarium. She spun the chair slightly from side to side.
“That one’s glowing, Dad,” she said. Her finger hovered just above the greenhouse frog.
Jared set the grass frog down on the nightstand.
“Don’t touch it,” he said.
Cindy gripped the edge of the terrarium and peered deeper. Her toes barely touched the seat and Jared had the preposterous thought that the tank might swallow her whole.
“The fat one looks hungry,” said Cindy. Her voice was dulled by the glass.
“Cindy,” Jared said. “Go sit on the bed for a minute.”
He wanted to scoop her up and sit her there himself, but kept his hands pocketed and waited for his daughter to step down off the chair. He hadn’t washed the day’s work off his hands yet. He knelt in front of her.
“You know you’re not supposed to be up here,” he said.
She kicked the box spring with her heels. “I know.”
“Did you touch any of them?” Jared asked.
Cindy shook her head. “I only looked. Am I going to lose dessert?”
Jared sighed. “No. Wash your hands and go downstairs.”
He closed the door behind Cindy then slipped his hands inside the terrarium. The familiar thrill-pit of nerves huddled in his stomach. The greenhouse frog was warm in his hands, glowing a dull orange. Burning from the inside, he imagined. Jared drew the curtains and, in the dark, watched the frog’s body pulse with light. Schmeckle would explain it away as an anomaly, some miraculous freak of nature. He would accuse Jared of dipping the frog in cracked Glo-Sticks. Jared placed the frog back among the twigs and leaves. The tree frog took up almost a third of the tank now and stared hungrily at everything.
By the terrarium’s light, Jared unscrewed the grass frog’s lid and tapped the jar at the edge of his palm. Tiny earthquakes to encourage movement. The frog stuck-slipped-slid its way toward the mouth of the jar. Jared plucked it from the lip, felt its small weight in his hand. He examined each thin leg, counted its toes. If he held his breath, quieted his own pulse, he could feel the frog’s heart against his fingers. SpongeBob’s nasal enthusiasm drifted up through the carpet.
“I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready,” Jared mimicked, running a forefinger over the frog’s skin. It blinked up at him, or he thought it did. He put the grass frog in the tank and pulled on gloves. He stripped to the skin, losing layer after layer, unnerved by the amphibian eyes, but liberated by them also.
The first frog to disappear was the Florida cricket frog. In truth, the frog was so inconspicuous compared to the others that he’d almost forgotten about it.
“There are only five frogs in the tank,” Diane said at breakfast. “Weren’t there six before? I think the giant ate one.”
There were six before. Now there were five. He peered into the tank. At this point, the tree frog, the first frog from the pet shop, was more than triple its initial size. It was now roughly the size of a small dog, a chubby Chihuahua maybe. He took it out, held it to his face. The frog seemed healthy if otherwise huge. He put it back. It wasn’t swollen exactly, just bigger.
Phineas came in trailing the computer chair and stood next to him. He grabbed for the edge of the tank.
“You touched my frogs!” he said. His face twisted into the shape his mother’s often did.
“Phineas,” Jared said. “Be careful. You’re going to fall.”
Phineas looked him in the eye and rotated back and forth on the chair.
“No I’m not. You said you wouldn’t touch my frogs. You said they were mine.”
Jared put his hands on Phineas’s shoulders. Phineas shrugged them off.
“I’m sorry,” Jared said. “I had to check them.”
“For what?” Phineas asked.
Jared scrambled for a thought.
“Magic,” said Jared. “I had to check them for magic, but I couldn’t tell you.”
The relief-guilt he felt whenever he lied to his child washed through him.
“Magic?” Phineas asked.
“Look.” He stood behind Phineas, wrapped his arms around him, and pointed.
“You don’t believe me? Your greenhouse frog’s glowing isn’t it?”
Phineas nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Weird.”
“And,” Jared continued, pointing at the tree frog. “Have you ever seen a frog that fat before?”
Phineas laughed. “Fat magic,” he said.
Jared smiled. “See the little one there? The peeper?”
“That one talks sometimes,” Jared said.
“Yeah, right,” said Phineas. “Why’s it so quiet?”
“Maybe it only talks at night.” In truth this scared Jared. Its small words looped through his ear canals the entire night before. “Peat,” it said. “Ring. Oak.” Diane never woke.
“Dad,” Phineas said. “Dad, look at the spotted one.”
Jared found the leopard frog with his eyes. Its spots blinked at him. He pulled his hands out of the terrarium.
“What’s it doing?” Phineas asked. The frog wedged itself in the corner closest to him.
“I think it’s looking at us.” Jared bent closer. Each of the frog’s spots rolled to follow his finger across the glass. He reached in and picked the frog up. The spot-eyes were bumpy and cold against his skin. Jared wanted to drop it, but didn’t want to scare his son. Up close the eyes shone like wet bronze.
“I want to see,” Phineas said. He pulled at Jared’s hand and grinned at the frog.
“Hey, Phin? Let’s have this be our secret, okay?”
“The magic frogs have to stay secret?”
“Yes. If too many people see them, they lose their powers.”
Phineas nodded solemnly. “Okay.”
Jared put the leopard frog back.
At work, Jared worried about the rest of the frogs. He thought about the fact that the grass frog turned grey, then black, whenever he held it. It faded back to brown as soon as he put it down. Jared thought about Diane poking him awake the night before and pointing to the terrarium. “One of the frogs is glowing,” she’d said. “It’s sort of pretty.” She fell back asleep and Jared was left awake in the low orange glow to wonder about the chemical nature of things. In the dark the peeper croaked: “Light.” “Coal.” “Ink.”
He felt the leopard frog squirm in his shirt pocket beneath his coveralls.
All this while he punched chemical mixes into the computer, ordering up another batch of nylon, another vat of innovative plastic. All this while dodging Jarrod’s high-fives and listening for the phone on the far wall, for an incoming call, an emergency, Phineas with a rash around his eye, Cindy with no voice.
Jared backtracked through each screen and touched each OFF button he was cleared to. He remembered when OFF buttons were actually buttons. The machines clicked and screeched, making the large metallic noises they always did before finally humming into silence.
“Yo, man, what’d you do?” Jarrod was at his shoulder. Jared pretended not to hear him even when he peered at his face, plastic mask to plastic mask.
“You have to turn it back on,” Jarrod said. The solemnity of his voice caught Jared’s attention. “You’re going to get me fired. I can’t get fired.”
Jared looked him in the eye. “Yes, you can.”
He was going to see Schmeckle again. He’d decided that morning that he would maybe go see Schmeckle, and now he was definitely going to see Schmeckle. Schmeckle’s door was locked. The paper clock on the door said he was at lunch. Jared knew Schmeckle ate at the Osceola Tea Room on Grand, so that’s where he went.
“Checking out early today?” the guard asked. Jared squinted to make out the name on his badge then wondered if he’d always had to squint to make out name badges. Trent it said.
“Taking my lunch outside,” Jared said.
“Ah,” said Trent. “Hope you got your sunscreen handy.”
Jared drummed his fingers on the front desk once and left. Nerves hit him as soon as he got in the car, and he couldn’t tell if it was because of the heat that he was sweating. He felt swoony. He pulled the leopard frog out of his pocket and splashed it with warm water from a half-filled bottle. Every eye on the frog’s body blinked against the liquid and Jared, suddenly afraid, wiped away much of the water. What would plastic particles do, he wondered. Blind it? Paralyze it? He imagined it shivering in his hands, convulsing, dying. Jared started the car. The frog blinked at him.
Schmeckle always sat at the back in the eight-person corner booth. Once, taking pity on him, the secretary had told him this. He’d never used the information, not until now. Thick, pink drapes turned the sunlight a muted salmon—the color of Cindy’s princess dress. The thought propelled him onward. Jared found Schmeckle halfway through a tuna melt, waving a fry at a couple of men in pressed suits. He felt the leopard frog’s toes press against his chest. He thought he could feel its heart flutter. Jared slid into the booth beside the man with the red tie. He would be polite, he decided, but insistent.
“Mr. Schmeckle,” he said. “I’m very sorry to bother you here [he wasn’t], but I couldn’t wait until after lunch to speak with you [he couldn’t].”
Schmeckle bit into a fry. “You know you’re fired, right? I got a phone call about you switching off the equipment. You know how long it takes to boot those things back up? We’re going to be behind on orders by at least three days now. And it’s all coming out of your salary. In fact,” he said, and here he waved a fry. “No severance pay. Bye-bye now.”
Schmeckle’s friends laughed. The one in the blue tie had a gold filling in his bottom right molar. Jared’s breath hitched in his chest and he thought about losing the house, losing his wife, losing the kids. He thought about Cindy with her chapped lips and Phineas with a growth behind one of his knees. The frog twitched in his pocket. Jared placed a hand over it.
“What’s that? Better not be some recording device,” Schmeckle said. He leaned across the table, careful to keep his tie out of the ketchup. “Because I’ll get lawyers on your ass so fast—”
Jared pulled the frog out and set it on the table.
“It’s our newest product,” Jared said.
Schmeckle squinted in the dim light. Each of the frog’s eyes glistened. A shudder went through its body.
“What the hell? It’s a frog.” Schmeckle glared at him.
“Look at it,” Jared said, and nudged it forward. It gave a weak hop toward the edge of Schmeckle’s plate.
“Look at what?” He glanced down. “Are those eyes?” Schmeckle pulled his hands off the table. He looked at his buddies. “You’re both witnesses to harassment.”
Jared placed the frog in the middle of Schmeckle’s plate.
“I opted for this. To support my family.”
Shmeckle looked at him, his face twisted with disgust. “What the hell did you do to it?”
The frog’s foot smeared ketchup. Its eyes swiveled and blinked.
Shmeckle leaned closer to Jared’s face. “I asked what you did to the frog. Were you screwing with company products? Because I’ll sue you, I swear I will.”
Jared thought how very small Shmeckle would be without his purple tie and dress shirt. He wondered what he would look like in gym clothes, in a t-shirt and jeans, in boxers before bed. Probably he had skinny legs.
Jared left the frog staring up at his boss.
When Jared woke the next morning, Diane was propped up in bed staring at the dresser.
“I think something’s wrong with your frog,” she said.
He rolled over and looked up. Green filled the entire terrarium. Bits of gravel and bark were pressed against the glass with trapped globs of water. He sat up quickly and went to the tank. Two small eyes peered at him from the top of the mass. A leg—purple—hung out of a very large mouth. Jared put his ear to the glass. From somewhere he heard a muffled, “Reed.” Jared sat on the edge of the bed and ran his hands through his hair over and over again. Diane came up behind him and put her arms around his chest.
“It ate the last one right before you woke up,” she said. “It took you so long to fall asleep, I didn’t want to bother you.”
She rested her chin on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Jared stared at the freckle halfway up her forearm, brushed his finger over it.
He leaned his head against hers, then stood. He’d make pancakes this morning, he thought. They never had pancakes anymore. Cindy and Phineas would like that. Then he’d take the frog somewhere green and slide it from between panes of glass. He’d drown it or bury it or leave it where maybe someone else would see it.
Photo of frog in terrarium courtesy Pixabay.