Fiction: Frogs by Madeline Perett

I’m at the pet store picking out fish for my tank, which I bought one year ago and has sat empty since then. I lost my job a few months ago and am having trouble finding new work.

There’s a tank full of tiny frogs—African Dwarf Frogs. Some struggle towards the top while others sit at the bottom. I wonder if a few are dead.

Peggy and I used to call it frogs.

The summer after we graduated from college, our friend Jeffrey Andrews invited us to his family’s home in Norton for a weekend. The house sat on a lake and was surrounded by the woods.

Jeff had a thing for Peggy and only invited me to be polite, as most people knew Peggy and me to be an inseparable duo. We took a lot of the same classes. If one of us was absent someone would ask the other, “Where’s Peggy today?” or “Where’s Frankie today?”

Jeff’s parents hovered in the background the whole weekend. They seemed dull and dour and we avoided them as best we could.

One night, we told them we were going to look for frogs by the lake, then we went for a walk in the woods and found a nice clearing where we could smoke a joint.

I find a clerk and ask for three of the African Dwarf Frogs.

***

Jeff’s house was the closest Peggy and I had ever been to the country.

“The country?” Jeff said. “There’s a shopping mall five minutes down the road.”

We were sitting in the living room. Jeff and Peggy sat on the sofa while I sat in a chair across from them. Jeff rested his arm on the back of the sofa behind Peggy, who was focused on the book in her lap.

“Hey, Frank,” Jeff said. I hated when people called me that. Frankie, I allowed. But Frank was a man’s name. “Nice night out. You should go for a walk.” He wanted to get rid of me so he could be alone with Peggy.

“Too tired for a walk,” I said.

“You could go to bed if you’re tired.”

“I’m feeling restless.”

I got jealous sometimes of the boys who liked Peggy. I wanted her to myself. She was the first friend I made at college. And the only one I ever cared to be around.

“Do you have any board games?” I asked Jeff.

“Not really,” he said.

Peggy looked up from her book. “Do you have Scrabble? I love Scrabble.”

Jeff looked at Peggy and smiled. “I think we have Scrabble.”

Peggy was still high. It always took her a long time to come down. There was still a glaze over her eyes.

Jeff got up and went to a cabinet against the wall, and I moved to the sofa to sit with Peggy. Jeff turned around with Scrabble in his hands, and his smile faded when he saw me on the sofa.

We set up the game. Peggy was first and took a long time staring at her tiles. She giggled to herself a few times before setting down “FROGS.” Then she lay back on the sofa and laughed.

***

I come home from an interview that I’m sure I flubbed and find that two of my African Dwarf Frogs have died.

I call the pet store and ask what I’m doing wrong. The boy on the phone tells me to change the water in the tank and bring in the dead frogs to replace them. I’m not sure I hear him right.

“You want me to bring in the dead frogs?”

“Yes,” he says, unfazed.

I’ve already flushed them down the toilet.

***

Peggy and I got an apartment together in Boston after college. Frogs became our regular code word even when we didn’t have to use it. It was just the two of us but we’d still say to each other “Want to go look for frogs?”

This was before Peggy moved to New York and before she asked to be called Peg, as Peggy was too much of a child’s name.

I still call her Peggy whenever we talk. And she never corrects me.

***

I go back to the pet store to get more African Dwarf Frogs.

The boy who helped me last time asks if I’ve changed the water.

“Yes,” I say. “The third one died.”

“Oh,” he says. “That happens sometimes.”

I get home and put my new frogs in the tank. I got two this time. I let them out of the plastic bag and they head in separate directions. One swims to the left and stays near the top while the other floats to the bottom. I watch the one at the bottom swim to a corner of the tank. It does not move from its spot.

***

I visited Peggy in New York City during Memorial Day weekend last year. We hadn’t seen each other for over a year. Peggy explained she was too busy with her job—editorial manager at an independent publisher. I was a teller at a bank—not my ideal job.

She had me over her apartment. We sat in her living room on a couch too white and new to be sat on.

“How’s work?” she asked.

“Good,” I said. “Keeps me busy.”

“Really,” she said. She knew I was lying.

To be funny, I said, “Want to go look for frogs?”

She offered a tight smile. “Oh, Frankie,” she said softly, amused but with a look of concern on her face. It was a very motherly response.

Then I noticed her hand on her stomach and a slight bump.

“I’m due in November.”

“Congrats,” I said, half-heartedly. I’ve never liked children.

Her husband walked into the room.

“Margaret,” he said, “where’s the Crock Pot?”

It sounded so strange. Who was Margaret?

***

Peggy emailed me photos of the baby shortly after he was born. His name is Joseph—Joe, they call him.

“You have to come meet him,” Peggy wrote, signing off “Love, Peg.”

I keep promising to visit but have made no plans to do so.

***

On our last night at Jeff’s, Peggy and I snuck away while he talked to his parents in another room.

“Let’s go look for frogs,” we whispered.

We followed a path through the trees and stopped when we could no longer see the lights of the house. It was very quiet except for some crickets and a far-away buzzing we couldn’t place—cicadas, perhaps.

Peggy pulled out her pipe. I had given it to her on her last birthday. It was a blown-glass pipe with blue and white swirls. We passed it back and forth until there was nothing left to smoke, then we just stood there in silence looking up at the canopy of trees, at the shadows of bats swooping by above us.

Then I heard someone, something, call out my name.

Fronk, I heard, very low and drawn out.

We followed the sound and wandered off the path. We came across a brook and it got louder.

FRONK, it said.

Then we saw it. A bullfrog sitting at the edge of the water. Fronk, fronk, fronk.

There was a light behind us searching through the trees and Jeff calling out, “Peggy? Peg?” Then my name, more firmly, “Frank.”

Fronk, said the bullfrog.

I grabbed Peggy’s hand and she squeezed back, then we went running towards the light.

Peggy yelled, “Don’t let go.”

Madeline Perett lives and works in Boston, She has had stories published in Black Heart Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. Her story “Hurry, Hurry,” which was published in After Happy Hour Review, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at madelineperett.com.

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