Perhaps it was a cult

Frogs_Moore_Weekender
Jake Moore/Staff

 

Vladdy was his favorite. He was by far the most active, and he enjoyed hanging upside down from the wire-net terrarium roof. Next was Theodora. Theodora was incredibly sassy, always hopping on top of Anthony or Starshine. Daniel also liked Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist because he had named them after the members of Animal Collective. Mercutio had the bluest armpits. They even seemed to get bluer under the heat lamp. Strawberry had the longest legs. Fully extended, Strawberry’s legs were the length of Daniel’s index finger.

He knew he wasn’t really supposed to touch them all that often, but when he, May and Jeremy had brought the clear plastic bucket of red-eyed tree frogs back to his apartment, they had quickly lined the frogs up one at a time against the door frame to mark their heights. It was then that they had named each one, inscribing their titles next to the various tick marks ranging from one to two inches from the hardwood floor.

“I knew it. I knew this would be the best birthday gift in the history of ever. I told Jeremy.”

“She did.”

“I did.” May beamed as she held Panda Bear without grace in a cage of spread fingers .

“You know, nothing says ‘I care’ like a gift card,” Daniel said and smirked.

“Nothing except maybe a gift card to Petco.” May widened her eyes to stare at Daniel with the force of a telekinetic until her right eye twitched, then broke to a grin.

“I wasn’t going to get you anything. I was going to get you that thing where we go get beers, and I say, ‘This one’s on me,’ and then you get the next one cause, like, courtesy.” Jeremy scooped Starshine from a dust bunny spreading from the crevice between wall and floor.

“But I said ‘No!’ Mostly because I couldn’t afford any sort of substantial gift card on my own. But, like, also because we care,” May got up to set up the new terrarium.

“Jeremy, I fully expect your gift as well.”

“Done.”

The office had celebrated Daniel’s 27th birthday during lunch. Karen had baked a cake, so everyone stood around the conference table and sang “Happy Birthday,” but no one had brought candles, so instead Daniel blew lightly above the cake as soon as they stopped singing. He had found it to be a nice thought that his warm breath sat atop everyone’s dessert. May had called in the afternoon to say that she and Jeremy would be picking him up after work for his birthday gift.

Daniel had tried to fit as many guesses into the 12-minute ride to Petco as possible.

“My own set of maracas so I can join the mariachi band at Pepe’s? A flask disguised as tiny binoculars and we’re going to the opera? An insurance policy?”

“Yes,” Jeremy said.

“Which one?”

“Yes.”

“A romantic picnic in the field by Skechers? A night at Chuck E. Cheese? A pony?”

“Ooh, kinda!” May exclaimed as she pulled into the Petco parking lot.

They gave him the card, no wrapping and then spent 20 seconds chanting “yes” over and over in the car.

Karen had baked a cake, so everyone stood around the conference table and sang “Happy Birthday,” but no one had brought candles, so instead Daniel blew lightly above the cake as soon as they stopped singing. He had found it to be a nice thought that his warm breath sat atop everyone’s dessert.

After setting up the new terrarium across from Daniel’s kitchen table, they took off for McCormack’s for the rest of Jeremy’s gift. Sitting at a sticky round table next to the jukebox, Daniel shared the epic love story of his new pet ownership circumstances to Roz and Allan from work.

“The pet store is the best. It’s like a theme park for adults.” Daniel asserted.

“I think it’s also for kids,” Roz rolled her eyes.

“See that’s what I thought too, but the clerk there was the most serious man I’ve met. He’s there watching us run from cage to cage — ”

“You know, I think he was just tired. Working in a fairytale land must be exhausting,” May interjected and pushed her short hair behind her ears.

“Yeah, and he probably doesn’t like talking to us normals. We don’t live the pet store life,” Jeremy added as he pulled a loose strand of May’s hair into place with the others.

“It was pretty strange when we got to the frogs,” Daniel laughed. “So we saw all these cute little green frogs just jumping over each other, and it was love at first sight.”

“What kind of frogs?” Allan asked.

“Shut up, Allan.” Jeremy said.

“Shut up, Jeremy. Allan, they are red-eyed tree frogs. They’ve got orange feet and blue armpits and these little cheetah print things on their sides. Their eyes are these crazy, bright red balls. Really big compared to the rest of them. But yeah, so when I saw the frogs, I knew I had made my decision.”

“Actually, I saw them first,” May sipped her a ginger ale.

“So I call over to the clerk and I tell him I need one of these little guys, and he says they need to stay together. They like company or something. So I say screw it. I’ll take them all. Then the guy let’s out this mammoth sigh and throws his head back so hard his glasses fall off.”

“He seemed so relieved,” May said.

“Probably glad to get rid of us so he could chill in the puppy playroom,” Jeremy added.

“Yeah,” Daniel laughed. “Definitely didn’t want to play with us.”

“Why didn’t you get a puppy, Daniel?” Allan asked.

“Yeah, you love dogs! Your apartment has a balcony right?” Roz added. Daniel took a swig of his beer and grinned.

“Too much work. I can’t take care of a dog. It’s not the right time.”

After a few more rounds, Daniel returned home to his new roommates. The frogs were clamoring about their glass case, clinging to the wide leaves of the plants in what Daniel immediately decided to dub New Reno. He bid them goodnight and collapsed on top of his bed.

 

Waking 20 minutes later than usual, Daniel spent the morning combining his various morning tasks: brushing his teeth in the shower, tying his shoes while shitting. As he ran to set the toaster, a flash of green caught his eye on the counter. Avey Tare sat mere inches away from the coffee maker. Daniel swept him up and hustled him to the terrarium, where the wire net hung loosely in one corner. Tossing the frog back in New Reno, Daniel secured the net, grabbed his toast and coffee and ran to catch the bus to work.

Daniel told a few others in the office about his frogs and even a couple clients. Roz asked about them when she came to him for his receipts.

“So how do they like their new home?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say they love it, but they haven’t started writing messages on my mirror yet so I’m not sure.”

“Hmm, well, let me know once they start communicating more effectively.”

After lunch, Daniel swiftly forgot about the frogs and didn’t remember again until he walked into his apartment that night to the glow of the frogs’ heat lamp. He dumped a few insects in from a bucket he had bought at the pet store and then left to play pickup soccer with Jeremy and some college friends.

The next morning, Daniel stirred before his alarm. Pleased, he rolled slightly onto his side to find himself face to face with Mercutio. The electric blue of his armpits stood out against the white of the sheets.

“Fuck!” Daniel startled into wakefulness. He grabbed Mercutio and plopped him back in New Reno, then grabbed his stapler and stapled the loose corner of the terrarium cover.

After work that day, Daniel returned home to cook dinner. He took his suit off and stood in the kitchen readying ingredients for a stir fry in his undershirt and boxers. Sauteing some mushrooms and garlic, Daniel stirred his hot pan, adding in different greens, bouncing to Young Father’s “27.” Lifting the pan to flip its contents, he almost dropped it. Sitting mere inches from the flames was Theodora, bright red eyes looking deeply at the fire, locked to it.

He slammed his free hand between Theodora and the stove, trapping her but ending up criss-crossed. Rearranging himself and the pan, Daniel carried Theodora to New Reno where yet another corner had loosened from the cover. These are some strange frogs, he thought to himself as he stapled the other corner down. I love it. Keep me on my toes.

The door buzzed.

“Dan, it’s me. Let me in,” May’s voice poured from the intercom. Daniel buzzed her in and returned to his stir fry. May burst through the door, extracting her layers of coats and sweaters as she walked.

“Let me look at the frogs!” She hurried toward the glass case. “Aw, they look so sweet, piling on top of each other,” tapping at the glass near a leaf holding four of the frogs.

“Yeah, they’re kind of a wild bunch. Keep surprising me. Oh, did I tell you? I named their case. Welcome to New Reno. Like New York. But for Reno.”

These are some strange frogs, he thought to himself as he stapled the other corner down. I love it. Keep me on my toes.

“We’ll have to get Jeremy to make a sign,” May smiled and bit her thumb nail. She stared at the frogs a bit longer, following Vladdy as he clung to a branch and then sat at the counter.

Daniel finished cooking, pulled out two forks, and set the pan on the counter between them. May interrupted Daniel’s story of the conversation he listened in on at lunch.

“I have news,” she said.

“Well, by all means, keep it to yourself as I delve into the greater mystery of one man’s hair loss and how his lasagna relates,” Daniel took another bite.

“I’m pregnant.”

May looked unsteady but beamed.

“I wasn’t sure, but now I am and Jeremy and I are so, well, so happy.”

Daniel swallowed his bite and stared at May, a moment’s hesitation and then a half-open smile. He looked to her stomach, covered by a light pink button down blouse. It looked the same, but her eyes danced at him.

“That’s … wow, May, that’s amazing. I … I’ve been waiting for someone to make an evil henchman for me. I was just going to combine you and Jeremy’s DNA in a lab, but this is definitely easier,” he laughed.

“You know, I always knew that my womb would be put to good use. I thought I was just going to use it for extra storage or something, but life is full of surprises.”

“I can’t wait for you to start doing pregnant person things. Quick, vomit on command.”

“I will spend the next nine months practicing that.” They finished the stir fry and Daniel continued his hair-loss story. When May got up to leave, he told her to tell Jeremy congratulations on planting his seed and that he looks forward to extracting some stem cells for their plans for immortality.

Closing the door after her, Daniel laughed to himself and scratched his chest. After a pause, he hurried to his room to get dressed. He was meeting Jenny from accounting for drinks.

 

When he returned, Daniel found himself standing next to New Reno, watching the frogs. Panda Bear was sitting on top of Starshine until Mercutio pounced on to the same leaf, disrupting the balance. Theodora and Geologist seemed to be the most active, hopping across a log running through New Reno, though Vladdy dangled from the wire cover over where Strawberry rested on his own leaf. He looked closely at Vladdy’s orange fingers. Each of his legs split into three digits, seven of which wrapped around wires, holding Vladdy’s body upside down. Extracting three sticky sunset-colored limbs from the metal, Vladdy moved slowly away from Strawberry’s leaf. Daniel lifted his finger to touch Vladdy’s orange feet through the mesh. They stuck slightly to his skin as he peeled his finger back.

The next morning, Daniel pulled himself to sit up at the end of his bed. Rubbing the crust from his eyes, he turned to crack his back. When he opened his eyes again as he twisted his spine, a flash of color stood out against his sheets. Upon closer inspection, the flattened speck of green and red appeared to be Strawberry. He could tell by his long legs, fully extended from the lifeless torso. A moment of panic, a sharp breath. But then Daniel swept up the dead frog and flushed it down the toilet. He walked over to New Reno and checked the cover once more. He must have accidentally nudged it last night while petting Vladdy; it sat slightly ajar with a corner of the glass frame exposed. Daniel closed the terrarium and carried on with his routine. At work, he thought about what to say to May and Jeremy about the deceased frog.

Jeremy called later that afternoon.

“So, May said she told you the news,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah. Holy shit. We should start thinking now of names to call May when she gets all huge and bloated.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“I was thinking Beluga.”

“Eh, we’ll see. She might not like that too much. I made a sign for the frogs by the way. It says, ‘Welcome to New Reno,’ but it looks like the Vegas one.”

“Fuck that reminds me: Strawberry died today.” Daniel sighed.

“What? It’s been two days! What did you do?” Jeremy laughed.

“Well I guess he couldn’t get enough of me. He got out of New Reno, and I think I crushed him in my sleep on accident.”

“Hmm, well at least you showed your dominance over the others. Otherwise you’d have to mark your territory in New Reno.”

“I might still do that. To be safe.”

“I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll bring the sign by this weekend.”

Sunday afternoon, Jeremy and May arrived at Daniel’s apartment with pancake mix and a tiny “Welcome to New Reno” sign. After taking a moment of silence in honor of Strawberry, May affixed the sign to the back of the terrarium with double-sided tape. Then they began work on the pancakes.

Once done mixing, Jeremy and May sat to watch Daniel flip the pancakes. Daniel had made a lot of pancakes in college and had learned how to flip them with just the pan. Thrusting the pan forward and up, he jerked the pancakes upside down. As the cakes piled up, Jeremy and May got to work, ravenously tearing at them with their hands. Daniel, caught up in the rising fried dough, lifted his pan to flip yet another pancake when a streak of color drew his eyes to the stove.

There stood Theodora, poised to jump. Before he could process the situation, Theodora leapt with a forceful determination into the blue flames of the burner, sticky flesh letting out a whining hiss. May and Jeremy had been involved in their breakfasts, but at the sizzling, May jerked her head toward the noise.

Daniel immediately turned the fire off and set the pan down. He grabbed a paper towel and pinched at the charred black frog body.

“Did you guys see that?” Daniel asked quietly.

“No. What happened?” Jeremy kept eating and peered over to Daniel’s paper towel.

“Oh god, Dan. I’m so sorry. I must have left the top off a little.” May got up to close the terrarium fully.

“It just jumped into the fire.” Daniel looked at Jeremy. “Fucking strange.”

“Which one was it? Do you know?” May asked.

“I think it was Theodora.” Daniel looked at the crisped frog-like chunk of flesh and walked it to the toilet. On returning he said, “I think she was a pyro.”

May smiled.

“Oh yes. She was simply too mesmerized by the flames. I see.”

“Wow man. That’s two frogs down. Only seven left,” Jeremy added.

Daniel nodded. He had watched Theodora jump face first into the fire. It felt like he had witnessed something he wasn’t really supposed to see, some sort of glitch. He shook his head and then grabbed three pancakes and sat down.

There stood Theodora, poised to jump. Before he could process the situation, Theodora leapt with a forceful determination into the blue flames of the burner, sticky flesh letting out a whining hiss.

“Well, have you guys thought about getting a midwife? I’m sure you can do better than just a barn and a bucket of water.”

“I was thinking of letting the aliens settle everything while I’m unconscious. I’ll just need to time the abduction right.” May smiled.

“We could always just keep it in there until it’s old enough to work,” Jeremy said.

He wasn’t sure at first, but Daniel grew more suspicious of the frogs. Tuesday morning, after putting his toast in the toaster, Daniel returned from brushing his teeth to find that Avey Tare had escaped from New Reno only to fall into the toaster. He pulled yet another crisped frog from his kitchen, leaving the toast and toaster untouched. Daniel closed the cover more securely over the frogs and then left. On Friday, he found Starshine bloodied and dangling from an unstapled corner of the netting where she had apparently gotten stuck.

Daniel stapled the netting to its wooden frame at every corner. He dumped more bugs into New Reno and then settled the roof perfectly into place. Collecting various containers from his kitchen, Daniel balanced a jar of coffee beans, a can of tomato soup, a can of corn and a box of Oreos on top of each corner.

That night, he met Jeremy and May for drinks at a new cocktail lounge. Peering through the poorly lit room, Daniel zeroed in on his friends at a booth in the back.

“Shots?” Daniel joked.

“I don’t know. This tonic and lime has got me all good.” May feigned a drunken hiccup.

“You okay buddy? You look like you need a shot.” Jeremy squinted at Daniel.

“I’m gonna get one of their fancy cocktails, I think. Starshine died today.” Daniel paused to pick at a hangnail. Jeremy and May looked at each other then looked back to Daniel.

He bought his drink at the bar and returned to chat. They fell into conversation of a familiarly playful tone. Hours passed quickly.

“I think we’ve got to go,” May said with a yawn. “We’ve got an early doctor’s appointment tomorrow!” She smiled at Jeremy.

“Yeah it’s getting late. You guys want to do something this weekend?”

“Maybe later in the week. We’re supposed to start baby-proofing on Sunday.”

“Oh, fun. Well I’ll see you guys later.”

 

Daniel returned to his apartment to hear a series of tiny thuds. He looked around before leaving the doorway, listening closely.

Slowly, Daniel closed his door and approached New Reno, glowing orange from the heat lamp. Squatting to get a closer look, Daniel watched as Mercutio slammed his face into the glass wall of the terrarium, leaping into the same spot, falling and leaping again. Streaks of blood began to cloud the spot, but Mercutio continued relentlessly. His skull would flatten against the glass again and again, spreading the red smears, thudding into the barrier. After a few minutes, Mercutio took his final leap which left him limp, body slowly drifting down the glass, dragging streaks of red with it.

With Mercutio gone, Daniel began to panic. These are really strange frogs. He resolved to deal with Mercutio in the morning and promptly got into bed. He lay still for a long time, breathing heavily, staring at the ceiling.

The next day, Daniel collected the cans and boxes from the top of the terrarium and removed the roof. He took a wad of toilet paper and picked up the cold lifeless body of Mercutio, rushing it to the bathroom to be flushed. Before tossing him into the toilet bowl, Daniel paused to inspect his injuries. Though his left eye was squished and swollen and his face was slightly misshapen, Mercutio looked as he had when Daniel had measured his height: brightly colored and, well, frog-like. A loud crash sounded from the kitchen, startling Daniel. He threw Mercutio into the toilet and rushed toward the noise. On the kitchen counter, he found Geologist leaking out from under the can of corn, his back half fully flattened.

This was it. Daniel tried to take a step back and laugh at the absurd sight of a frog caught under a can of corn. But he could only stand, horrified, and stare at Geologist. He came to the conclusion that the frogs were trying to kill themselves.

“You saw it, right? You saw Theodora jump into the fire?” Daniel had called May.

“I didn’t see it. I looked over when I heard something, but that’s it. I’ve got an ultrasound in like a minute so it’s going to sound like I’m hanging up but — ”

Daniel pulled one of his chairs up close to New Reno and sat. He had put the roof back on and rearranged the weights on the cover sans corn. Now he sat and watched the frogs. Panda Bear, Anthony and Vladdy hopped around casually. They didn’t appear to mourn the loss of so many of their brethren, though Daniel was not so familiar with red-eyed tree frog mourning rituals. Instead, they looked restless, moving from leaf to log to dirt to leaf. He fed them again and continued his stare.

The weekend passed like this. Daniel called in sick to work on Monday in order to stay with the frogs. He just wanted to be sure. He knew he wouldn’t be able to use another sick day for Tuesday, so he spent the day frog-proofing the home, hiding sharp or heavy objects, turning off the pilot light of the oven, covering all outlets.

It took a great amount of effort to leave for work the next morning. Daniel kept double checking various threats such as loose cupboards or heavy objects to make sure they were secure. Finally, there was nothing left but to abandon the red-eyed tree frogs. He grabbed his coat and bid them farewell.

Jeremy called while Daniel was filing away paperwork. He wanted Daniel to come to their apartment for dinner.

“I … I don’t think I can, man. Something is wrong with the frogs,” Daniel trailed off.

“How do you mean?”

“I, well, I think they’re suicidal. I’ve only got three left. They just keep killing themselves.” Daniel twisted his hands, rubbing his palms on the back of his phone.

“So, you’re a shitty frog owner. So what? Don’t worry about it. May just wanted something fun to do for you. It’s not a big deal,” Jeremy said. “I’ll see you tonight?”

“Hmm, maybe.”

Daniel left early from work complaining of a headache. He rushed back to his apartment and burst through the door, leaving it open as he strode toward New Reno. Scanning the terrarium for Anthony, Vladdy and Panda Bear, he felt a slight tremor in his hands. Vladdy and Panda Bear were accounted for; Vladdy clung to the upper right corner of the glass while Panda Bear hopped gracefully onto a leaf. Anthony remained to be found.

It was remarkable, he thought. Perhaps it had been some sort of pact, and the red-eyed tree frogs were members of some amphibious cult. Perhaps it was him that they couldn’t stand. The sight of him would spark an insidious desire to cease existing. Daniel finally came to the idea that they must hate captivity.

Daniel searched New Reno for escape routes left unattended but found none. He opened the cover and placed Panda Bear and Vladdy under an upside down cup on the counter. With them accounted for, Daniel sifted through the shrubbery of New Reno, rolling the log around, lifting leaves. It was then that Daniel peered into the tiny pond under the leaves. Anthony floated upside down in the shallow water, belly exposed.

“He drowned himself.” Daniel had called May.

“That’s preposterous. Frogs are swimmers. They know what they’re doing.”

“He really did, May. I don’t have any other explanation. I don’t know how to keep these guys alive.” Daniel was sweating, staring through the glass of the cup that contained his final two frogs.

“Dan, take it easy. Come over and make fun of Jeremy for his cooking. It’s consistently mediocre.”

“No, I need to wash New Reno and the frogs. Maybe later.”

Daniel dealt with the body and then turned to Vladdy and Panda Bear. He brought them in their cup to his bathroom sink, afraid they would fall into the garbage disposal of the kitchen sink. He turned on the warm water and lightly rinsed them one at a time, first Panda Bear, then Vladdy. He felt their soft oozy flesh warm to his touch, felt them blink their wide, round, red eyes. As he washed Vladdy, Panda Bear grew restless in his cup. He leapt out with greater strength than he had ever before been capable of and flung himself directly onto Daniel’s rusted razor. With Vladdy still in hand under the stream of warm water, Daniel watched as a puddle of dark red blood collected under the razor.

After he finished cleaning, Daniel sat with Vladdy next to New Reno. It was remarkable, he thought. Perhaps it had been some sort of pact, and the red-eyed tree frogs were members of some amphibious cult. Perhaps it was him that they couldn’t stand. The sight of him would spark an insidious desire to cease existing. Daniel finally came to the idea that they must hate captivity. In the dim evening glow, Daniel scooped Vladdy into a ziplock, poking tiny air holes at the top, and left his apartment for the field between the Skechers parking lot and a liquor store.

 

The cool night breeze tousled his hair as he walked, cradling Vladdy against his side. He walked deep into the field until he hit a swampiness too thick for his shoes. He held Vladdy’s bag up, looked into the dark black ovals in his bright red eyes.

“It’s whatever you want to do. You can stay here. You can come back home. I can get you more friends. We can figure this out, OK?” Daniel slipped his finger into the baggy to lightly stroke the chartreuse top of Vladdy’s head. Vladdy reached out to his finger, sticking easily to the membranes and pulled himself up to cling to Daniel’s pointer.

Daniel pulled his hand from the bag, squatted and deposited Vladdy at the base of the swamp. After a moment, Vladdy took in his surroundings and took several leaps to bypass Daniel. He hopped in the direction they had come from, bouncing from thick bunches of brownish grass. The glow of dusk glinted on his oily skin, pleasantly reflecting the sharp green and orange. Daniel followed tentatively, watching Vladdy make his way through the meadow. They approached the street, and Daniel smiled for an instant. He thought Vladdy wanted to return home and was in fact leading the way.

For a moment Vladdy paused, taking in the asphalt. Then, in a swift motion, Vladdy took his final few leaps into the path of a grey Jeep Cherokee and was promptly rolled, tumbled and disintegrated into a splatter of frog flesh in the street.

Later that week, Daniel took the terrarium back to Petco. Lugging the weight of New Reno through the threshold, Daniel made eye contact with the clerk. He set New Reno down on the counter and stared blankly at the clerk.

“Didn’t work out?” the clerk asked, pushing his glasses farther up his nose.

“I don’t know. I’d like to return this,” Daniel said.

“We can only give you store credit.”

“That’s fine. Hey, do you know if something was wrong with these frogs? Like, were they sick or something?” Daniel looked to the clerk earnestly, furrowing his eyebrows.

The clerk took a moment to think, rearranging his orange apron around his waist.

“Hmm, no. I don’t think so. I think that’s just how frogs are.”

Daniel paused and rubbed his shoulders. He glanced back at the clerk, noting the thickness of his glasses, contorting his small brown eyes.

“Do you think you could put it on a gift card? I’ve got to get a present for someone.”

“Of course,” the clerk said. He handed Daniel the card and the “Welcome to New Reno” sign from the terrarium.

Daniel walked home and put the sign up in his kitchen.

Contact Emma Rosenbaum at [email protected]