And the Frog

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11

She selected a Campbells Chunky Beef Stew, grabbed a can opener off the hooks, and poured it into a baby blue bowl.

“Throw a paper towel over top of it when you put in in the microwave,” said John, “’cause that stuff pops like zits when it gets to heatin’ up.”

Like zits. She looked to the soup in her bowl and took a moment to evaluate whether eating was still a possibility after that new imagery had been introduced to her. As it turned out, hungry was hungry and she pulled a paper towel from the dowel that was screwed onto the sink counter. The microwave was so loud that she blinked when it started, and she watched the bowl turn around and around, thinking of the teacup rides at the carnival during the summer time. She went with her father and uncle once, and one of them, she didn’t remember which, elbowed her in the head while they were flailing about on one of the roller coasters. It had knocked her out, and when she’d woken up they were in the car on the way home. The soup turned and turned.

“What do you think about a kitchen appliance themed amusement park?” she said.

“I think the Blender would have the longest line,” said John.

“Mm.” Now that she thought about it, there weren’t a great many kitchen features that would translate well into thrill rides. “I’ve always been more of a rolling pin girl myself.”

“I don’t think rolling pins count as appliances.”

Good point. “You’re right,” she said as she popped the microwave door open. “We might have to expand our theme parameters. Include whisks and knives.” She grabbed a few more paper towels to pick up the hot bowl. John was right, it had popped so much that the paper towel over the soup was almost shot through.

He snorted. “Knives?”

“Well, carnival games.”

“Ah, I like where your head’s at. What about actual food?”

She took rubber bands off of four drawers by the sink before she found the one with silverware in it. “Prizes,” she said. “Food would be prizes. One piece of pizza for every evenly sliced apple.”

“Now it just sounds like work.”

Her soup was chunky, as the name on the can promised. And if she found it splattered on the road instead of in a bowl, she would not hesitate to assume it was vomit. Nevertheless, hunger. She took a seat, dipped her spoon into the soup, and burned the ever-loving hell out of the roof of her mouth. “Monkey fuck,” she said under her breath, and then realized she didn’t pour herself anything to drink and/or soothe hot mouth pain.

“Then again,” continued John, “I guess what’s work and what isn’t depends on how you define a good time. You’re gonna need a strong marketing strategy, and – oh, nuts and ass.”

She felt Ferrule slow dramatically and come to a stop. “What?” she said.

“Get up top,” said John, eyes on something in front of them.

“What?” she said again, sliding out from the booth.

“Now please, Emma.”

Alright then. She heaved herself onto the bed, quicker this time than the first time, and crawled to the window behind the fridge. She pushed the right curtain aside and looked out. The road looked familiar. It looked like it had after she’d awoken after the crash. Empty. Yellow-grey light. Rain in the distance. But there was something on it, up ahead. A . . . a horse.

And a rider. They were far away yet, and standing still. But the horse looked a dark brown, and the rider looked a woman. Her face was covered with a bandana, cowboy style. Her whole ensemble matched the aesthetic, as far as she could tell. Hat, boots, everything.

“It’s Marigold,” said John.

Change is a good thing. It had been why she’d left her home with Saphal, after all. No one wants to remain static indefinitely. Change is instigation, inspiration. Some people start performing better at work just because they moved their bed to a new angle. She had been looking for that kind of change on a large scale. She had been looking to become a new version of herself, in a way Which is ironic, considering. She’d wanted life to become something new, or at least she’d wanted to know that there was more to be discovered. Or she just wanted out of what was familiar. Same difference.

She remembered her father, because he was a simple man that allowed himself to be constructed by the clichés of the world, asking her what she expected to find. In truth, she might’ve actually expected something then, but of course she didn’t remember now. As she listened to his voice in her mind, she wished she could tell him that having no expectations at all was the whole point. Although she wasn’t even sure where that notion came from. All she could really remember about her former self was that that girl and her current self both agreed; change is a good thing. But, as is the case with many protagonists and/or heroes, the change she found was altogether unpredictable and, well, ostensibly impossible.

Through all that happened so far since the crash, which relatively wasn’t all that much if you think about it, from this point forward it would be this moment that she recognized as that in which “it” all changed. It all became something entirely new. Although she didn’t nearly understand what was going on, it was clear enough to her that there was something rather significant about the world she lived in, and maybe more. Because according to every living person she had ever encountered, what happened next simply and plainly should not have.

She noticed, as her father’s voice faded away, that suddenly the horsed Marigold seemed a dozen or so yards closer, though she hadn’t been walking, and she was pointing a shiny revolver right at her.

“Best be backed away from that window!” said John as Emma rolled onto her back and she could hear a p’kow. And when she looked up there was a small white mark where the bullet had hit. “It’s bulletproof,” said John “But how ’bout we don’t take chances.” She nodded, though she knew John couldn’t see her.

“Maybe we run her over?” suggested Emma, and frankly she was a little irritated that John hadn’t already tried it.

“No,” he said. “Our kind don’t kill that easy.” Another p’kow, another white mark on the window.

“So we keep running?” Her heartbeat was at a bothersome volume in her head. She’d never been shot at before, unless she counted water guns, which she decided very staunchly in this moment that she did not. She took a second to process the fact that goodness gracious this woman was trying to kill her. And for now she was less afraid for her life than astonished that anyone in the world would care enough to pursue the task. Not someone who had a bad day and a gun, not someone defending themselves, someone actively hunting..

“Tried that, was hoping she wouldn’t come this far for us. Was hoping she hadn’t gone this far off the sane train.”

P’kow. “You weren’t trying to outrun her?”

“Those that drive this road can’t really outrun each other, Emma.” She heard his seatbelt unbuckle. “I was just trying to get far enough fast enough that she wouldn’t take the time. She’s got work to do somewhere else, same as me.”

“She must really be pissed.” P’kow. “Probably didn’t help that you punched her in the face.”

“No I don’t suppose it did.”

“So what’s she doing now?” well, besides shooting at a bulletproof window.

“She’s waiting, challenging.” His voice was moving, he was behind her. She twisted and saw that he’d crawled up between the seats and was in the RV, standing face to face with her. “In the blue bag, there’s a black box.

P’kow. Emma unzipped the blue duffle bag. The only thing in it was what looked like a tiny black tool box. She took it out, handed it to John. “Damn you for making me do this, Marigold,” he said as he took the box and walked toward the back of Ferrule. He sat the little box on the table, snapped it open, and took the only thing that was inside. It had the handle of a screwdriver, orange, but the tip had a big square block of metal on the end. One hand holding the handle, he laid the block end in his other palm and just kind of, well, grunted. The block split open, revealing the true tip of the screwdriver, which looked like, rather disappointingly, like a normal screwdriver.

He inhaled, then started unscrewing all the screws. P’kow. “This is the only thing that can open and seal this cabinet,” he said as he worked. “You might need to know that. In the future.” Might she? When he had each screw out and in his palm, he laid them in a casing in the little box. There were seven. Then he put the screwdriver down next to it, and reached for whatever was in the cabinet.

It was a revolver. “That looks a lot like the one she has,” said Emma. She really hadn’t gotten a good look at Marigold’s gun. P’kow. But she hadn’t exactly studied revolvers in her lifetime, so really they all pretty much looked the same, which she realized made her observation a bit stupid, until John said,

“Yeah. They’re twins.”

Oh. P’kow.

“Listen,” his eyes were on his gun as he spoke to her. “I want you to know that I really am sorry.”

“For what?” said Emma.

Now John looked at her. He flicked the revolver so that the little wheely part popped out, spun that part, and then flicked it back in. “I,” he said, “I don’t know yet.” And then he turned at was out the side door. She blinked when she slammed it shut. P’kow.

She crawled back over to the window, where she could see John walk up in front of Ferrule, and then stand there facing Marigold, who was maybe fifty feet away. The two seemed just to stare at each other for a while, each with a glinting gun in hand. Then Marigold snapped her head to one side, the same way Emma sometimes did to pop her neck, and climbed off of her horse.

And behind her, something rose from the ground. Gravel cracked and dust clouds plumed as what looked like a slender tower poked up like a sewing needled through a bit of cloth. A shadow spilled across the road even though there didn’t seem to be a sun in the sky. When it stopped rising, dust settled and the ground stopped shaking. And Emma could see at the top a large, ornate clock. The hands showed 11:59.

“Oh, you cannot be serious,” she said to no one. The two holstered they’re weapons, hanging their hands at the ready, and Emma wondered how she hadn’t noticed that John was wearing a holster. She expected, at a time like this, John to say something like We don’t have to do this Marigold or Is this really how you want to play this out but in the end she really didn’t know him that well and neither of the two said anything.

Saphal and she caught cowboy movie fever every once and a while. The greatest element they had to offer was simple characters, people who were easy to understand. Don’t be mistaken, Emma enjoyed a complex, colorful character as much as the next nerd, but sometimes it was deeply satisfying to lose herself in a readily tangible protagonist. So she’d seen her fair share of showdowns at high noon, and the principal thing she observed was that they were never interrupted. The tension, the anticipation, the anxiety were all too sacred in cinema, and it seemed no filmmaker would ever compromise that trope. It was largely because of this that she simply sat and watched, the back of John’s thinning head, and the distant face of Marigold, eyes ensorcelled in the shadow of her hat. She wasn’t grinning like a good cowboy movie villain should, instead she looked rather stoic, which seemed contrary from the woman she’d seen at the Walmart. Emma squinted as she tried to make out the details of her face, high cheek bones, hair over her ears, and, drool? Drool running down her chin, glinting like her gun. Emma wiped her own mouth, slightly uncomfortable just looking, and moved her eyes up to the clock at the top of the tower, which now rea-P’ko’P’kow. She blinked.

Her eyes moved slowly back down. Down to Marigold, standing next her horse, wiping her mouth with the back of her sleeve. Then farther down to John, lying belly down on the road.

Nuts. Emma scrambled off the bed, grabbed the screwdriver, put in her back pocket, and thanked herself once again for being a girl with pockets.

What should she do now? Die? She couldn’t dash out of Ferrule and run. She’d been on this road before, wherever that was, and knew there wasn’t anywhere to go. Obviously she couldn’t hide, she had no doubt that Marigold was at least clever enough to check the bathroom when searching for prey on an RV. Fight? With what? The only other weapon she knew of was outside on the ground next to John, and besides he had said that “his kind” weren’t easy to kill. So she just stood there on the shag carpet and turned toward the front seats.

The car door opened, and Marigold climbed into the driver’s seat. She took off her hat and put it on the frog’s lap.

She turned the key and the engine rumbled on. She didn’t adjust the mirror, or buckle her seatbelt.

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